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Part II: Primal Disclosures


1. The Definition of Religion

Comparative theology is an enquiry into ideas of God and revelation, of ultimate reality and its disclosures to human minds, as such ideas arise across the full spectrum of human history and experience. It is not, as the comparative study of religions might be, primarily a sociological or psychological enquiry, asking what various people actually believe or practise. Nor is it an attempt to correlate beliefs with social and temperamental circumstances. It is primarily an enquiry into truth and rationality, fundamentally concerned with what it means to say that there is a God and an authentic revelation and with whether there is one. Such a study is sometimes called ‘philosophy of religion’, and there is no need to invent an artificial distinction between the two disciplines. The term philosophy of religion is quite recent. It was used by Hegel in the development of his own view that the philosopher can express in conceptual thought what religions express less clearly in picture or symbolic form. Partly for that reason, it is sometimes regarded as a discipline which assumes the superiority of secular reason to religion. There is no necessity for this, however. Of course rational thought, both critical and creative, is important. But it could well be that religion has sources and forms of knowledge which reflective thought needs to take account of and which do not derive from reflection on the general nature of the world alone. A philosopher of religion may well belong to a particular religious tradition, and accept revealed truths from that tradition, which are then critically analysed and articulated as systematically as possible. In that case, the line between the philosopher of religion and the systematic theologian is vanishingly small.

In practice the study of theology involves the close study of scriptural texts, the history of doctrinal formulations and of religious communities, and some attempt to work out practical implications of a religious way of life—topics in which philosophers may not be expected to take a lively interest. Theologians are likely to take a much greater interest in the authoritative declarations of specific religious bodies, often attempting to reformulate them in new conditions while affirming their authoritative status within a specific community. But in so far as theology is not purely confessional, there should be no division in principle between the disciplines. It is too restrictive to regard theology proper as the study of Christian doctrines; and it is too restrictive to regard the philosophy of religion as some sort of neutral enquiry into arguments for the existence and nature of God and the soul (topics which themselves belong rather obviously to certain monotheistic religions).

If one is to enquire into the truth of religious claims, one has to know first of all what they are; and if one is to appreciate their meaning, one has to see the contexts in which they arise and continue to be used. Thus, if the enquiry is to be adequately based, a great deal of information about religious practices and beliefs is required. An important task is to examine the vast amount of information about religions that has been collected by anthropologists and sociologists, particularly in the twentieth century. In this way the enquiry will be given its broadest base, and will be protected against the accusation of short-sighted prejudice in favour of just one tradition. But even to begin such a study involves some decision about what sort of thing one is going to consider—that is, what ‘religion’ is, or at least what sorts of phenomena one is going to study under the heading of religion. It has proved almost impossible to construct a definition of ‘religion’ which will cover every case and be acceptable to all scholars. Yet anthropologists have little difficulty in deciding what sorts of beliefs and practices they will regard as religious. The fact that every class has borderline cases does not count against the existence of a class. So one can begin with at least a working definition which is widely accepted, and proceed to refine it as and when necessary.

A common working definition of ‘religion’ is that it consists of Beliefs and practices concerning non-human spirits, beings with consciousness and will, which can affect humans for good or ill. This is a slight expansion of E. B. Tylor's ‘minimum definition’ of religion as ‘the belief in spiritual beings’.1 The trouble with this definition is that it almost inevitably makes religion sound like a form of primitive science, wherein people postulate disembodied spirits to account for events that occur in the world, and devise primitive—and ineffective—mechanisms to make these spirits do what human beings want. Many early anthropologists would have been very happy with this implication, as that is precisely what they thought religion was. Sir James Frazer, in his classic work, The Golden Bough, defined religion as ‘a propitiation or conciliation of powers superior to man which are believed to direct and control the course of nature and of human life’.2 Whereas magic is a form of primitive science, and as such deserves a certain respect, it is nevertheless the universal creed of the ignorant, and ‘a standing menace to civilisation’.3 Religion begins when one acts from the love and fear of God; and this, while intellectually superior, is morally inferior, since in it ‘Man's old free bearing is exchanged for an attitude of lowliest prostration’, in which one cringes before unpredictable spirit beings and tries to pacify them by human sacrifice or other moral absurdities.

Spirits are here thought of as quasi-scientific entities, to be manipulated in magic or propitiated in prayer, providing a sort of primitive technology to improve the human lot. Many anthropologists feel that to be an unduly technocratic approach to religious belief, and there have been many attempts to achieve a more sympathetic definition. It has, however, proved remarkably difficult to do so. Leuba has listed a large number of definitions of religion, all of which differ in detail.4 The basic problem is that either a proposed definition will be too narrow to include all things we normally call religions—thus Tylor's definition would exclude religions like Buddhism—or it will be so broad that it is virtually vacuous.5 For example, Max Muller's assertion that ‘religion consists in the perception of the infinite under such manifestations as are able to influence the moral character of man’ is an example which might include anything from football to symphony concerts.6 Those who prefer a narrower definition must be prepared to pay the price of exclusion. Thus M. E. Spiro7 defines religion as ‘an institution consisting of culturally patterned interaction with culturally postulated superhuman beings’, because this matches key features of religion in our own culture. He is quite ready to allow that not all societies possess religion, in this sense. If one does wish to include phenomena such as Buddhism, one could seek to adapt such a definition slightly, following Eric Sharpe. He has suggested a view of religion as belief in ‘the actual existence of a supernatural, suprasensory order of being, and of the actual or potential interplay, through a network of sacred symbols, of that order of being with the world’.8 The idea of a suprasensory order of being does not commit one to the existence of individual spirits, but more broadly to the existence of a supersensory dimension which underlies the perceived world and gives it meaning, purpose, and value. Further, the idea of symbols and rituals as effecting an interaction with that reality (or realities) does not commit one to any sort of causal, means-ends relationship with spirits, but more broadly to the possibility of forms of relationship which may mediate the power and value of that reality to the sensory realm.

Naturally, any definition is going to create problems, and one might object that Sharpe's definition seems to limit the interplay of supernatural and natural to a purely symbolic one, as opposed to a causal one. But one can meet this point by suggesting that the interplay between suprasensory and sensory orders of being, whatever form it takes, is expressed through a network of symbols, which would leave it open whether it was purely symbolic or not. At least Buddhism, which does not count as a religion if reference to worship of spirits is insisted upon as part of the definition, can be included in this conception. The supersensory realm in Buddhism is nirvana, which is certainly beyond the reach of the senses; and nirvana has an ‘interplay’ with the sensory realm, as (that to which sensory beings can attain, or unity with which they can realize.

In the end one may well feel sympathy with the Wittgensteinian point that it may be better not to seek one ‘essence’ of religion which all things called religions share, but to set out many examples of religions, trace family resemblances between them, and say that anything which possesses a large enough set of properties from such a set of resemblances can well be called a religion.9 Above all, one needs to say what one's interest is in forming such a definition. I Different definitions may well reflect different interests; and in this respect the interest of the comparative theologian is primarily in investigating the nature of claims to revealed knowledge which have been made in human history. One is therefore looking at types of human activity in which claims to such revealed or authoritative knowledge have been made. Reference to the believed existence of a suprasensory realm and of a special knowledge of it which relates to human good and ill, are the key characteristics for investigation. For this reason, a preliminary characterization of religion as concerned with authoritative knowledge of a suprasensory realm in its relation to human good and harm is one which best suits the nature of the undertaking. However, I am not wanting to claim any final superiority for this definition as a philosophical or anthropological tool. It will simply serve as a delimitation of the class of phenomena with which the comparative theologian, in my sense, will be concerned.

2. The Religious Dimension

From the theologian's viewpoint it may well seem that the definitions of the early anthropologists of religion managed to miss the religious dimension altogether. This illustrates very well the difficulty of obtaining a value-free understanding of religious phenomena. If one sees the religious practices of one's own culture as superstitious and absurd this will be reflected in one's characterization of religion. Frazer saw the history of religion as ‘a long attempt to reconcile old custom with new reason, to find a sound theory for an absurd practice’.10 So it is not surprising that he presented his account of early religion as a set of absurd practices. Nevertheless, both Frazer and Sharpe would agree in general on the range of phenomena which are to be accounted religious. They are concerned with practices, and their accompanying beliefs, which seek to relate human life to a suprasensory realm of being. Rituals which seek to do this in order to enhance the quality of human life, and myths which specify, whether in symbolic or literal terms, the nature of the ultimate powers for human good and ill which rituals mediate, would be recognized as religious by both. Frazer would see the myths as false hypotheses about the causal bases of nature, and rituals as either magical or infantile ways of attempting to influence these causes. Sharpe, however, is prepared to see myths as having a symbolic character for presenting higher levels of reality in sensory form, and rituals as symbolical mediations of the power and value that such levels of reality can bring to human life.

Whatever the exact definition or theoretical account, one can thus see that the realm of religion is primarily a realm of myth and ritual. No doubt in early societies different forms of human mental activity were not sharply distinguished, so that religion is not seen by members of such societies as separate from other human activities. But it is reasonable to separate it out if that is useful for purposes of clarity or understanding. Where religion exists in human society, it usually postulates that there is a suprasensory dimension of being and that one can be related to it for the increase of good or the avoidance of harm. The sociologist P. Worsley writes that ‘[primitive man] conceives of a single order of reality, I in which man… through ritual, has some contact with and influence… over powers of a more far-reaching and compulsive kind… the spirits are at work in our world’.11 One may, he says, speak of superhuman beings, but ‘It would be better to speak of a superhuman “realm” or of “powers”’.12 Such powers may be conceived in many different ways, and one may be content to speak of the relations of tribal members to local spirits or ancestors in ways which arise from a host of particular circumstances, which are not systematized within any larger scheme of understanding. However, when religion begins to develop intellectually, it usually seeks to move beyond such relatively unreflective conceptions to present a view of the ultimate nature of reality and the place of human life within it.

Ninian Smart has distinguished six main dimensions of religion, which he terms the dimensions of myth and doctrine, of ethics and social organization, of ritual and experience.13 The myths of religion present a sacred cosmology or world-view, placing human life in relation to suprasensory power or value. They can operate in an almost wholly symbolic and unsystematized manner. Worsley instances Nadel's study of the Nupe14 as showing ‘the relative unimportance of religion as an exhaustive, overarching cosmological system’ in primal societies.15 Sooner or later more systematic schemes inevitably develop and one can then speak of the doctrines of a religious scheme. The myths are most often said by their adherents to be founded in ecstatic experiences, visions, dreams, auditions, or inspired utterances which establish the symbolic form of the myth.

The genesis of such myths is not a purely theoretical matter, however. At the heart of religious practice are rituals for obtaining good or avoiding harm, and myths specify the powers which can be invoked by the ritual. Ritual practices usually broaden out from specific cultic acts into the formulation of general sacred laws governing the life of the community, which specify a moral goal or way of life for social organization and for the ethical conduct of the individual, intended to maintain a right relationship to the suprasensory powers.

If, in comparative theology, one is concerned to place particular religions in the widest historical and cultural context, one must try to achieve some view of the way in which these and related factors enter into the lives of societies throughout the world. It is plainly impossible to attempt a detailed history of religions, or even a detailed study of particular religions, as an introduction to a comparative theology. Fortunately there is abundant scholarly work available in the history of religions, providing data much more reliable than those used by early anthropologists of religion such as Tylor and Frazer. The comparative theologian can use such data in two main ways. One can attempt detailed, small-scale studies of particular doctrines, providing specific comparisons and contrasts. Since such doctrines are embedded in much wider patterns of thought, however, one must also attempt the more speculative and holistic task of describing and evaluating the nature of religions in general. In this work, I am attempting to locate Christian claims to revelation within a wider context of the history of religions. This requires both some overall view of that history and some attention to detailed particular beliefs which will support and amplify it. What I have chosen to do is to sketch an overall view by picking out some main religious traditions which exist at the present time and giving some idea of their general history and interrelationships. This sketch is based on the most widely accepted scholarly published work now available. Then in each case I have concentrated on one specific topic which I take to be of special theological interest and to contribute a significant theme to the overall study.

The aim is to produce generalizations which succeed in picking out important structural features, and to select topics which succeed in clarifying central problems within the religious traditions. The starting-point is the acceptance that there is more than one alleged source of revelation, and one needs therefore to form some notion of what a revelation is and what sort of authority it might properly claim. One is looking at the main phenomena of religious life in order to cast some light on the nature of revelation and come to some assessment of its proper authority. It can at once be seen that the general notion of revelation is involved in all the main families of religion. There are few believers in any religion who would be content to say that their religious truths have been invented as simple imaginative constructs, or that they have been discovered by rational investigation, without the need of some special insight which relates a few humans to a suprasensory realm in a specially privileged way.

The whole idea of a suprasensory realm has two important features. First, it is of a realm which is inaccessible to normal sense-observation or to processes of rational reflection which depend solely on sense-observation. Second, it is of a realm which is greater in value or power than the sensory realm; it is precisely supra sensory. Thus arises the idea of persons who develop special powers of non-sensory apprehension, who can be vehicles of relationship with this realm and discern its character. This is not yet enough for ‘revelation’, since such persons could be conceived as explorers of an inactive suprasensory landscape. For the idea of ‘revelation’ one requires the communication of information which is received, not so much by investigation as by obedient reception. Something must actively reveal or communicate its existence to those who are prepared in the right way to receive the communication. The most general idea of revelation is the idea of an active communication of information from a suprasensory realm to or through a person who has a special mode of access to that realm.16

This idea takes various forms, but is found in all main streams of religious life. Buddhism is, in one sense, a religion without revelation; there is no active communication from a God in most forms of Buddhism. However, there is certainly an authoritative teaching in Buddhism, derived from the enlightened insight of Gautama. He had a special mode of access to the suprasensory realm, nirvana, and he revealed it to his disciples by turning the wheel of dharma. In so far as the Buddha is himself seen as having passed beyond the sensory realm into nirvana, one can properly speak of a communication of information from that realm.17 It is in that sense that it is not wholly improper to speak of Buddhism as a revealed religion, whose teachings are received on authority by virtually all believers, as long as one is careful to note that there is no personal supernatural god who reveals the holy truths that most disciples learn from the Buddha.

3. Primal Religions

If one is seeking to place religions in historical context, it is natural to consider first the religions of primal societies. These may be defined as societies which are tribal or local in character, and which typically do not have a written tradition or feel the need to achieve any form of coherence with an autonomous realm of scientific thought. Present-day tribal religions may differ in many ways from the early faiths of humanity. They have, after all, existed for longer than most world religions and may have undergone many changes in that time. Evans-Pritchard is particularly scathing about attempts to establish the origins of religion by looking at primal traditions: ‘It is extraordinary that anyone could have thought it worth while to speculate about what might have been the origin of some custom or belief, when there is absolutely no means of discovering, in the absence of historical evidence, what was its origin… little or nothing can be done with such theories.’18 The particular objects of his animus are Spencer and Tylor, with their theory that religion originates in a belief in ghosts or spirits, perceived in dreams, and Durkheim with his belief in a primitive totemism. What is really wrong with such theories is that they assume that ‘religion is a form of illusion and therefore requires a sufficient explanation in external causes’.19 It is true that Durkheim maintains that religion is not an illusion, but a ‘social fact’.20 But he also says, ‘The god is only the figurative expression of society.’21 Believers are therefore under an illusion in thinking that their gods are objectively existent. It is (likely, too, that by tracing religious beliefs to alleged roots in a primitive mentality that has now been superseded, many early anthropologists meant to relegate such beliefs, at least in any recognizably traditional form, to the realm of the primitive and superstitious. Evans-Pritchard has more harsh words to say about those who reconstruct primeval religious history on a sort of ‘if I were a horse this is how I would see the world’ basis.22

In fact, however, more sympathetic recent studies of primal traditions, like Evans-Pritchard's own study of Nuer religion, may reveal the existence of important insights and distinctive approaches to the problems of human existence. If they do not show how religion originated, one can nevertheless see in them forms of thought and practice which illuminate some of the most ancient strands of thought which have left their traces in the scriptural traditions. The primal faiths are like pre-scriptural faiths in being non-literate, relatively untouched by scientific thought in the modern sense, and very localized. Robin Horton has argued that many African primal religions show processes of thought which are in many ways similar to modern scientific thought in being attempts to bring order and explanatory power to the experienced world. Nevertheless, he stresses that they lack the character of ‘openness’, or critical reflection, which marks modern science.23 They perpetuate practices such as divination, spirit-possession, animal sacrifice, and witchcraft, which the written canonical traditions have gradually overlaid with more rationalized and moralized conceptual systems. They may therefore help to give insight into the earlier forms of religions from which more developed traditions sprang.

This may not tell us the true meaning of religion, as anthropologists like Durkheim supposed; but an understanding of how religions have developed, of their historical roots and their changing forms, may help to explain many of the features present religions have. So, with a proper caution not to read too much too certainly from present tribal societies into prehistoric societies, one may nevertheless examine tribal religions as a help to reconstructing some of the earlier stages of religion, and thereby understanding how some of its present features are remnants from previous ages or developments which are best understood when their starting-points have been discerned.

At one time the primal religions could be dismissed rather quickly as primitive and savage; founded, as David Hume supposed, upon fear of the powers of the natural world.24 But in recent years a much greater appreciation has developed of such things as native American traditions, of Aboriginal stories of the ‘Dream-Times’, and of African tribal cultures. They have been studied sympathetically by a number of anthropologists and by members of the communities themselves, who have adopted scientific techniques of observation.25

A central figure in many such cultures is the practitioner who receives revelations in dreams, visions or trance-states. In Siberia and the Arctic, such a practitioner is termed a shaman,26 though other primal cultures usually also have members who receive messages from spirits or ancestors, concerned with ways to bring about good hunting or healing of disease.27 Such people are normally inducted into a social institution in which new members are trained in techniques of asceticism, of divination, and of healing. They learn to expect the visitation of spirit-powers, which invade their consciousness in visions and trance-states. Such forms of revelation precede any natural theology; and the practice of divination precedes and prepares the ground for the occurrence of specific revelations.

That practice is itself rooted in perfectly natural concerns of the tribe—concerns for food, for victory over enemies, for the healing of disease, and for well-being. It is often believed that there are powers which help in obtaining such things; and they may variously be conceived as spirits, good and bad, gods, or ancestors. Sacred power may be conceived as ‘mana’, as in Melanesia, which does not take individual personal form, but which is non-physical in character.28 Some anthropologists have spoken of a primitive animism of primal societies, in which trees, storms, and diseases are all seen as animate beings.29 And it seems that in many such societies the world is not generally conceived as an inanimate realm of universal laws, but rather as an organic totality of powers which may manifest in various forms, and of which sensory objects, animas, or unusual events can be expressions. This is not worked out in a systematic way, but it is often thought that the well-being and prosperity of the tribe depend upon the right relationships being maintained with suprasensory powers for good and ill; and they are maintained by the practice of rituals and by encounters with that suprasensory realm by trance-mediums.30 Religion is seen as primarily a social phenomenon. It is chiefly concerned with the way in which a supreme god might be related to the whole world; but with the relations of particular spirits, gods, or ancestors to a specific tribe. It is often accepted that other tribes will have other gods; they will certainly have other ancestors. It is the continued good of the tribe that is the main concern of religious cults, and human beings are seen as parts of an interconnected spiritual realm which can assure such good.

The anthropologist Mary Douglas expresses this idea of an ‘interconnected spiritual realm’ very succinctly: ‘A primitive world view looks out on a universe which is personal in several different senses. Physical forces are thought of as interwoven with the lives of persons. Things are not completely distinguished from persons… the universe responds to speech and mime. It discerns the social order and intervenes to uphold it.’31 It is not so much that there are distinct spiritual individuals who are gods or spirits. Rather, the totality of the world is spiritual as well as material; and spirit is expressed in many different ways, depending on the history of the tribal group and its crucial experiences.

Certain factors of importance for theology already become apparent at this early stage. There is not, it seems, one clear primeval revelation from an omnipotent creator. If there is, it has been totally overlaid and forgotten by later cults; and Fr. Schmidt's attempt to argue for a primitive monotheism has not generally found favour with anthropologists.32 In some tribal cultures there are rather remote ‘high gods’ who shaped the world order; but in others they do not appear at all. What is much more characteristic is a riotous plurality of presences—spirits, demons, and ancestors, of good and evil intent—whom the shamans or designated mediators can partly control or influence. If a suprasensory reality reveals itself to humans, it does so through enhanced or altered conscious states, and in a myriad forms which are not systematically rationalized.

4. Religion and Imagination

As palaeontologists and evolutionary biologists have discovered more about the long, slow development of human societies from pre-human species, so it has come to seem obvious that human thoughts develop from primitive beginnings and preconceptual forms of consciousness. The world in which these gods are living presences is a world not fully conceptualized, where subjective and objective, fact and value, dream and reality are not so sharply distinguished. One moves in a world of presences, which is not yet divided into the verifiably factual and the subjectively valued. The primitive reaction is not to see persons as emerging from inanimate objects, but to see the whole world as expressing the sort of being humans know themselves to have—conscious, responsive being. And it is not to see persons as unique, distinct individuals, subjects isolated from their environment by the yawning gulf that separates mind from matter, but to see persons as parts of one interconnected realm of reactive powers, working for good and ill. Today many people have the sense that such a preconceptual awareness of the unity and value of the natural order preserves something that analytical thought and a radical distinction of mind and matter have lost. It is not that it is a higher wisdom from which we have declined; but that it expresses a form of awareness of the unity, interconnectedness, and inwardness of reality which can easily be lost in a technological world.

In primal religions, the world is full of gods or spirits. The natural, indeed inevitable, question for the critical theologian to ask is: do these spirits exist? The unspoken implication is that either there exist clearly identifiable spirit individuals or there are no spirits at all. Yet perhaps the sense of individuality is not so clear in primal societies, which are more concerned with group life and totalities than with discrete individuals.

Thus the Bear cult of the Ainu of the northern Japanese islands, to which parallels can be found in many sub-Arctic regions, appears not to regard bears as distinct individuals, but as bearers of species-powers which can be reincarnated in successive individual bears.33 After being kept for some years, a bear cub is ritually killed in a great least, so that its soul may return to its parents and tell the kindness of the tribe in which it has lived. It is asked to return to the tribe again so that there may be good hunting, and it is offered sacrifices of sake and bowls of stew made from its own body. Then the head is placed on a pole and the animal is considered to have been ‘sent away’ with proper dignity.

It is obvious to the Ainu that the bear is really dead and that the food offered to it is not literally eaten. The important parts of the ritual are the killing, the offering, and the sharing of the sacrifice. The bear is killed only after it has been enraged by teasing, so that its full strength is expressed. One might say that the power of its life is concentrated in this way. It is both victim and the one to whom life is offered, so that it is in a sense a self-sacrifice, an offering of strength to the source of all strength. The way to the world of spirits is a way of discipline and renunciation. When the bear is ritually eaten, the people participate in that strength, binding themselves to the one they must kill in the hunt, yet on whose life they depend.

The importance of what happens is not on the sensory, observable level of reality. What is important is the bringing to expression of the power which is vital to the survival of the tribe, the reverencing of that power by the offering of life, and the participation in that power by the tribe. One might even say that the individual bear is sacramental of a spiritual reality in which the people can participate by obedience and self-discipline. It is not appropriate to ask of such a spiritual reality whether it is an individual entity or not.

In a different primal tradition a very similar pattern of thought can be found. Among the Algonquins of the eastern sub-Arctic, manitu is the power which inheres in the animal; which, one might say, the animal expresses.34 Perhaps one might say that the creative and destructive powers of the natural world are focused in particular ways in species of animal; and once they have been so focused, those powers can be gained by humans through the performance of proper rituals. The power might be manifested in particular bears, or in visionary bears which come to shamans in ecstatic trances, and which take on a sort of life there. But what is important is not the individuality; it is the power itself, manifested and therefore nameable in a particular form.

Is that power an individual? It is rather something that manifests in individuals; and as such it is part of a wider realm of all such powers, the Kitchi Manitou. Is this totality an individual or a collection of individuals? It seems that this question simply does not arise for the Algonquin. We might say that there are many powers forming one totality, a diversity in unity. It would be wrong to say that there is a consciously formed notion of one supreme being. But it is equally misleading to think that there is a host of distinct, individual, non-embodied beings, having some external causal relation to physical objects and activities. In a similar way, Mary Douglas remarks of the Azande, ‘To ask an Azande whether the poison oracle is a person or a thing is to ask a kind of nonsensical question which he would never pause to ask himself.’35

Questions about the individual personhood of spirits do not arise and are felt to be puzzlingly inappropriate. It is rather the case that objects and activities are imbued with and to some extent express facets of power which can be imaginatively represented in dance, painting, or in poetic narratives. Such representation gives the tribe contact with that power and enables them to embody it in themselves or to relate to it in a way productive of good.

A third example can be found in the recorded traditions of the Arctic Inuit (or Eskimo). When they speak of Takanaluk (Sedna), the half-human, half-fish goddess who controls sea mammals and rules the unholy dead, do they think there really is such a person beneath the sea?36 Perhaps there may be those who take literally the story of the girl who began to eat her giant parents and who was cast by them beneath the sea—the fundamentalists of Inuit religion. But just as it is clear that spirits do not really eat the food offered to them, so it is quite clear that there is no such person beneath the waves who controls the movements of whales and seals. Those who see Sedna are the shamans who, by the help of their guardian spirits, are able to propitiate the unpredictable goddess. Sedna has a particular form, in which she appears in visions. But that form has clear symbolic significance. From her dismembered body (her fingers) the edible sea-creatures are formed; her temper is shown in arctic storms; her one eye gives her penetrating vision of all human behaviour; her home at the bottom of the sea is the realm of disobedient human souls, who drown in darkness and desolation.

The form is an eidetic representation of the harsh, often arbitrary-seeming and yet life-supporting conditions of the Arctic world. What is here represented in an image is the character of the sea itself, as a power for good and harm. What the shaman meets in the dream-quest is this internalized image of the powers which bound Inuit life. The image is a mind-produced representation of the character of the ultimate powers for good and ill which surround the Inuit. It may not be consciously invented; it may arise from the natural imaginative activity of the mind, as it probes, in a vision-quest, to penetrate to the mystery of the limits of human existence. This mystery is represented, not by analytical laws or explanations; but by imaginative stories which seek to express what sort of reality it is that sustains and yet always threatens human existence. Religious images are products of the imaginative attempt to express the character of being, as it is experienced in human consciousness.

Yet these images come to shamans in visions and trances; they come as responses to the quest for acquaintance with reality as it is. In that sense they are revelations, communications from the suprasensory realm. What they reveal is the character of being as it is encountered in a particular set of conditions and through the history of a particular people. One might say that being comes to consciousness of itself as it comes to eidetic expression in the forms of visionary experience.

This reading of the meaning and significance of symbols in primal religion is supported by Evans-Pritchard's study and interpretation of Nuer religion. He writes: ‘Nuer regard Spirit (Kwoth) as being in some way in, or behind, the creature in which in a sense it is beholden.’37 Writers like Lévy-Bruhl postulated a primitive mentality which was unable to think logically and thus tended naively to identify twins with birds, cucumbers with oxen, and crocodiles with particular tribal lineages.38 But Evans-Pritchard points out that such identifications need not be naïve or illogical at all. They depend upon taking certain unusual events as signs of Divine activity, and are as intellectually complex in their own way as is the doctrine of transubstantiation (this point would only reinforce their absurdity, for Frazer, of course). Thus he shows how twins can be regarded as, like birds, children of the air—that is, of Kwoth; because of their unusual and propitious birth. There is a subtle interplay of symbols at work which fundamentally depends upon and seeks to express belief in the real relationship of particular human circumstances to the suprasensory realm of Spirit.

So it is with the Arctic goddess, Sedna. The image of Sedna may give rise to many conceptual formulations, but it is itself not conceptually formulated in any precise way. It is precisely a symbol, a preconceptual expression of a power which can only be participated in by rare individuals after long and difficult training. The shaman can experience this power; but most people will accept the symbol on authority as an expression of the character of the sea, seen as an ultimate limit on their lives.

It is noteworthy that there is a moral aspect to this image. Sedna rules only the disobedient, and keeping the sacred laws will induce her to send food to the Inuit. Being is seen as laying moral requirements on humans, even though it is itself destructive and terrifying in many ways. The preconceptual, symbolic thought of such cultures expresses a unity of the natural and the human in one dynamic interplay of powers, in which the outer form of beings expresses their inner spiritual reality. Religious forms of observance are concerned to give participation in the ultimate powers for good and to control the ultimate powers for evil within this wider spiritual reality.

5. Revelation in Primal Religion

The way in which these powers are represented depends upon the character of the environment, which provides the resources for symbolization; on the tribal history, which records significant events for good and ill, which show decisively the character of being; and on the growth of an imaginative, narrative tradition among the shamans, diviners, or prophets, by which expectations of certain sorts of spiritual experience are matched by appropriate visionary occurrences. The way of the shaman is a way to purify consciousness through fasting and discipline (though there are many cases in which drugs are used to hasten the process) so that the inner character of the bounding reality, the reality which circumscribes human life, is penetrated. A god or spirit is a particular form in which power is manifested, a power expressed in natural phenomena like the sea or the sun, which can be imaginatively represented by a symbolic figure. The construction of this figure is a combination of visionary insight and literary composition, and it gives rise to a tradition which shapes the spiritual experience of successive generations of shamans. Then, through the ritual repetition of the founding myth, the tribe can participate in the power which the god represents and use it for good.39

Thus the fundamental tacit belief of much primal religion is that sensory reality is an appearance of an underlying suprasensory world whose character can be discerned by processes of mental purification and whose powers can be used for human well-being— fertility, good hunting, and health. It does not much matter whether these powers for good are conceived as gods, spirits, or ancestors. The conception of them as ancestors strengthens the unity of the tribe, its sense of continuity over time and the sense of participation in the sacred powers. It is important, however, that these powers are not seen as value-free, as the powers considered by modern science are. They are inherently aimed at the realization or destruction of value, and their representation expresses an ideal to be attained or a danger to be avoided.

From these examples, taken from a vast source of materials which are now available, one might draw some general conclusions. If one is not going to regard all these phenomena as based on illusion, it is possible to discern a certain structure which seems to be expressed in them. For primal religions, the world of sensory experience manifests a deeper reality of very varied character, which can be apprehended at a preconceptual level by minds which have been prepared for it. Such character can be expressed by images (combinations of free imagination and visionary reception) which are worshipped or at the very least respected, usually by the offering of sacrifice, by renunciation and obedience, so that its value may be acknowledged. It can be participated in, so that its power can release one from egoistic concerns. And it can then be mediated in action to provide well-being for the society.

Religion is not a primitive technology for producing independently known goods. On the contrary, its perceptions help to define what is truly good, by showing what the right relationship to nature is (what the spirits require). Spirits are not just causal explanations; they represent the values and powers which are thought to be manifested in the natural world, before any split between natural explanation and evaluation has come into question.

The question of the individuation of powers and values is not really an issue; and gods will multiply for many reasons—because of a merger of tribal traditions; because different values and powers seem to require different representations; or because the world just does seem very ambiguous and complicated. But the statement of the Rig-Veda that ‘Truth is one, the sages call it by many names’,40 is probably a fair expression of primal religious thought, as long as that ‘one’ is not too specifically defined. Certainly the existence of other gods and traditions of worship does not worry the primal traditions; and gods can change their functions and names without too much trouble. One might say, from the theologian's viewpoint, that whatever the ultimate reality is, if it reveals itself in primal religions it does so in a myriad names and forms which are accommodated to the histories, beliefs, environments, and practices of different tribal societies. Such societies are not bereft of access to the spiritual realm, and may even have much to teach more economically advanced societies about the interior character and value of natural powers.

Yet it is undeniable that once analytical reason begins its explanatory task of categorizing and systematizing the world in one integrated conceptual scheme, the primal world of spirits ineluctably begins to fade and lose its power. Already in Homer and Hesiod that process has begun, and the gods of classical Greece are robbed of their primal power and reduced to the role of characters in a cosmic soap-opera. By newly emerging standards of rational explanation and of rational morality they were measured and found wanting. New forms of religion were already developing which would supplant the old in the Mediterranean world.


6. Images in Primal Religions

A consideration of primal religions suggests that it is natural for human beings to see themselves as parts of a fundamentally spiritual reality, a world of spirits, of acting and responsive powers and values. A ‘power’ is a cause of change; that which is capable of bringing states or things into existence. A ‘value’ is a state or object which is admired, approved of, or desired, an existent in so far as it is conceived of as good or intrinsically worth while. In primal societies what is important is the tribal group and the maintenance of harmonious relations with the environment which sustains but sometimes threatens it.41 Religion provides images and stories, with associated rituals, which relate the tribe to the higher powers and values by which they feel themselves to be surrounded—whether these are conceived as ancestors, spirits, or gods—and so provides the requisite sense of harmony and cohesion.

Possibly the nearest modern analogy to such a conception is to be found in societies in which the cult of saints is strong. A saint is an ancestor—a past member of the community—who has become patron of a certain sort of activity, as Cecilia is of music or Christopher is of travelling. Before performing, a musician may dedicate the performance to Cecilia or ask for her help and blessing. The figure is a channel of creative power and the symbol of a certain sort of value. The Catholic knows that it is God from whom all power comes and in whom all values are rooted; but St Cecilia is one who is believed to have realized a certain Divine gift or power and to be still filled with that power, through God's help; her closeness to God gives her wishes efficacy. For the primal believer, similarly, there is a hidden suprasensory source of all creative and destructive powers and values. But they are embodied in and channelled through human or animal forms, which are the spirits or gods who appear to shamans or spirit-diviners in their vision-quests. One should never make the mistake of thinking that ‘primitive thought’ is much more literal than modern thought. Perhaps the reverse is the case, and moderns read their quasi-scientific literalism on to others. As the anthropologist Lienhardt says of the Dinka, ‘It is never, among the Dinka, simply material things in themselves which are of central religious importance, but something formless, immaterial, invisible, associated with them.’42 Literalization, whether material or spiritual, is not typical of primal traditions.

In view of the vast array of gods and goddesses who have been worshipped in history, it seems that anything can become a theophany, if it manifests a valued or unusual power. Thus for the Inuit the sea can be a theophany both of the beneficence of nature in providing food and of the dangerous destructiveness of nature in storm and flood. It becomes a god when a particular form is taken to represent that which underlies the manifestation. Sedna, in its one-eyed fish/human form, becomes the image of that power, or of whatever hidden reality is expressed in it. The goddess is worshipped by offerings which are expressions of gratitude for her life-sustaining properties and also petitions for the courage, patience, and self-restraint which are necessary virtues in her presence. And through the mediation of the shamans, the tribe can participate in her power, realizing their unity within a wider spiritual whole and reverencing their world as the revelation of her hidden nature.

If this is a fair characterization of what is happening, it is misleading to ask if Sedna exists as a distinct individual. As Feuerbach wrote, ‘A god… is merely the hypostatised and objectified essence of the human imagination.’43 As so often, it is the word ‘merely’ which betrays the reductionism of the theorist who regards all religious beliefs as forms of illusion. If it is removed, one can accept this assertion. The human imagination may well give insight into objective reality, and its individual forms do not so much correspond to as express the character of that reality. What is important is whether the image of Sedna is a fruitful and adequate symbol of the spiritual reality which the Inuit experience through her. The critic might wish to ask if the primal theophanies give adequate insights into the suprasensory realm; if the representation has powerful affective force; if the forms of worship are revelatory of important values; and if the spiritual participation which is offered leads to true human fulfilment. These are not primarily questions about the existence of some non-embodied individual. They are about insights, feelings, values, participation, and fulfilment. Of course there is an existential—one might say a metaphysical—question at issue, too. But it is irritatingly difficult even to formulate; for it is a question about the inner character of the reality of which human beings are part, and which they apprehend largely in preconceptual and affective ways.

To have an insight into primal religion, and perhaps into any living religion, is to have some grasp of how one can have a form of awareness which is preconceptual, mediated largely through feeling and essentially imbued with value. The primal symbols of religion are hardly amenable at all to conceptual analysis; but they manifest and express powers and values appropriated through feeling, by which a tribe understands its own existence as meaningful and significant.

7. Distortions in Religious Imagination

Theologians who belong to a tradition like the Christian tradition are faced with a problem in interpreting the phenomena of primal religion. There seem to be four main views one can take. First, one might see it all as a matter of human projection. Second, one might see all gods but one as projections; or perhaps see most gods as demonic powers, in competition with the true god. Third, one might see all gods and spirits as possible channels of the Divine, which enable people to participate in its power. However, none of these gods might give a wholly adequate view of Divine reality; and one may see them as all complementary or as more or less adequate approximations of a truth not yet wholly known. Or fourth, one might see all gods as actually existent, just as they seem to be. For any religious believer, the first and fourth views seem to be ruled out, since at least one tradition must be accepted as veridical, and there can be no doubt that not all the gods can exist, since many beliefs about them contradict one another.

In the days of Christian missionary expansion throughout the globe, primal religions were often seen either as ignorant superstitions or as forms of demon-worship. Certainly when Augustine spoke of the gods of Rome, he regarded them as demons who were diverting people from recognition of the one and only true God, and which fled before the name of Christ.44 Also the ancient Hebrew attitude to Canaanite religions was not one of inter-faith dialogue, but of hacking down their sacred poles and destroying their sacred groves!45

In early Hebrew and Christian religion, the existence of many sorts of spiritual powers was not denied. It was rather that such spirits were inferior to God and were usually thought to be evil demons. Idolatry resulted if they were taken to be the one supreme God. But if one takes the general view that such gods are what may be called mediators of the Divine, channels and representations of Divine power and value, the position is rather complex. For God may speak through a channel, as God often spoke through angels in the Hebrew Bible, so that gods may mediate God, even if they are not to be identified with God, the ultimate spiritual power and value.

Is that not, in fact, the position one might expect a Christian to take? For Christians believe that God will go, and has gone, to any lengths to bring human beings to know and love God.46 How, then, could God ignore millions of human beings in primal societies, and fail to reveal anything of the Divine to them? When one considers the many thousands of years for which humanoid beings have existed on this planet, it is incredible to suppose that God had no concern to relate them to the Divine in knowledge and love at all. The early Christian theologians usually accepted that there had only been a relatively short period of human existence on earth, and that Adam had a close knowledge of God. So all humans had a primitive knowledge of God, which they covered over as sin spread through the world. Turning to other gods than the one God who walked with Abram as a friend was therefore construed quite intelligibly as a turning to demons, a turning away from the true God whom their ancestors had known.

If it is true that human beings have evolved slowly and over millions of years from states of preconceptual ignorance and blundering attempts to understand the world around them, the position is very different. There is no original clear knowledge of one God from whom they have turned away. At the very beginnings of any form of existence one might call human, the drives of lust and aggression were already deeply rooted in animal life.47 Homo sapiens only became the dominant life-form on this planet because these drives were strong enough to eliminate all opposition. One tan no longer think of humans as having fallen from a primeval state of innocence and perfect knowledge of God, into a state in which their passions were too strong for reason to control. The traditional doctrine of a ‘fall’ from innocence cannot be interpreted in a historical way, as referring to events that actually occurred in the past.

Nevertheless, it must be the case that there was a moment at which some sentient being felt the first stirrings, however vague, of a sense of distinctively moral obligation, a sense that passions ought to be constrained by altruism. If conscience is a feature of human life at all, there must have been a first moment at which its call was heard. In that sense, there must have been a first truly human being, responsive in some way to a Divine command or calling. Furthermore, if it is true that ‘ought entails can’,48 that nothing can truly be an obligation unless it is possible to obey it, then it was possible, even in that crude and savage state, to do what was right. It was also possible, of course, to fail to do what was right; and so there must have been a ‘first sin’; that is, a first refusal to do what was truly apprehended as morally obligatory, a first failure of the will. That failure is not to be equated with the prevalence of the amoral destructiveness or competition for resources which characterized the unreflective animal world. But such repeated failures, as they multiplied through example and influence in early hunter-gatherer societies, would certainly increase the destructive and egoistic tendencies already inherent in human nature. In fact one might say that ‘egoism’ only becomes such when the primitive amoral drive of self-preservation becomes established as a rationally adopted principle to which there was a real alternative in particular cases.

It is possible, therefore, without undue strain to reinterpret the doctrine of ‘the Fall’ to take account of modern historical and biological knowledge. There was no literal garden of Eden, with a naked, unashamed, and morally perfect Adam and Eve walking with a physically present God. Indeed, such a literal interpretation should always have been ruled out on the theological ground that it gives God a physical form and representation, which is forbidden throughout the Hebrew Bible. There was, and must have been, a first occasion of moral evil in the history of humanity; and evil became established as a rational principle of action, institutionalized in social frameworks, very early in human history. A Christian theologian may want to say, on grounds of faith, that a clear knowledge of God and the power such an awareness would bring could have enabled humans never to fall into responsible moral evil; that the possibility of always doing what is good could have been realized (and can be again) by a total commitment to Divine power. So it was as a result of rejecting Divine love, which caused an obscuring of the presence and power of God, that evil really gained its power over humanity, becoming a virtually inescapable weakness of each human will. In this sense, there is a primeval fall away from the empowering love of God, which leaves the human will too weak to resist egoistic and destructive impulses, and which leads human beings into bondage to irrational passion. ‘Original sin’ can intelligibly be construed as the fact that each human will is broken both by its own inherent weakness and by the pressures of a society and a history which makes evil seem overwhelmingly attractive. The consequence of primeval sin is not physical death, (which has always been a biological necessity. But it is spiritual death; the loss of the sense of God, the fear of death which springs from tacit knowledge of one's own corruption, and the self-destructiveness which deprives life of meaning and joy.

This primeval history, it seems plausible to suppose, occurred before any clear, explicit concept of God had formed. So, as soon fas humans began to form images of the suprasensory reality by which their lives were bounded, passion had already clouded human vision. Spiritual reality took on the attributes of wrath and judgement that are associated with a righteous God who condemns evil.

As humans began to frame concepts of the divine, one may postulate that their understanding was flawed by sin, by lack of acquaintance with God as well as by actual wrongs, virtually from the beginning. Their understanding of the Divine, like their under-standing of the physical world, had to grow through experience and reflection. But now their experience was distorted by passion, their reflection was corrupted through prejudice, and their encounters with the spiritual realm were characterized by guilt, fear, and hypocrisy. Seen by such minds, the realm of the spirit tends to be interpreted as a realm of tyrannical and angry gods who might be swayed by sacrificial bribes, whose main interest is to defeat tribal enemies and give success to their own favourites, and who stand in need of continual propitiation in case they wreak destruction by plague, famine, or flood. If there is a God who speaks in such a world, who acts to disclose or communicate the Divine nature and purpose, such action will be discerned amidst the ambiguity of human projections of passion and prejudice.

8. The Structure of Primal Religion

The birth of the gods lies in the imaginative transformation of being which attempts to reveal the manifold forms of its inner spirit—but that transformation is always attempted by an imagination which is itself corrupted by passion and prejudice. Hans Georg Gadamer brings out very well what part of this process is like. Speaking of the creation of works of art, he holds that the work of art is in a sense ‘more than the being of the material represented; the Homeric Achilles more than the original’.49 Art makes a thing more like itself (eigentlicher); the essence of the spirit of a thing is brought forth and disclosed in the sensory realm. ‘Reality’, he says, ‘is to be defined as what is untransformed and art as the raising up of this reality into its truth.’50

This imaginative transformation is aesthetic; it is a matter of presenting the spirit of a thing for contemplation. The religious interest adds to this a concern for a dynamic change of the self by relation to the disclosed reality. Gadamer seems to think that art itself calls for such a change. Unfortunately, the lives of artists and art critics hardly make such a view plausible. Kierkegaard was right in distinguishing the aesthetic from the religious by stressing that the latter, but not the former, is concerned with a passionate inwardness whose primary orientation is with the transformation of oneself by relation to a discerned value which one seeks to realize in oneself, not with transforming the vision of some object for contemplation.51

In primal religions, the concern with self-transformation is embodied in ritual actions. The anthropologists Spencer and Frazer, speaking from a position of methodological atheism, tended to see rituals as primitive and clearly ineffective mechanisms for fulfilling human needs and desires. Durkheim showed the inadequacy of their approaches, proposing instead that ritual expresses and reinforces the essential sentiments which bind a society together. However, he appeared to argue that, because the relations of believers to their gods are like the relation of individuals to their society, society itself is the real object of religious veneration: ‘The idea of society is the soul of religion.’52 This movement from similarity to identity is highly questionable. A more cautious view would say that the attitudes of respect which believers have for sacred objects are very similar to social and interpersonal attitudes, and are often modelled on prevalent forms of social relationship.

Just as individuals may respect and seek to imitate social role-models, so, as R. N. Bellah puts it, commenting on more recent studies of the sorts of Australian Aboriginal rites on which Durkheim had based his findings: ‘In the ritual the participants become identified with the mythical beings they represent… they are transformed into new identities.’53 The members of the tribe are taken out of their ordinary selves and embody a new mythic identity which makes them participants in the cosmic archetypal drama of the ‘Dream-Times’, uniting them to the fundamental powers which bound and constitute their lives.54

Seen thus, the gods are imaginative transformations of the powers and values of being, as discerned in a theophanic experience by some specially gifted or ‘inspired’ person, and are capable of channelling those powers and values to those who participate in their proper rituals. They are not merely projections of psychic desires, as Feuerbach might have argued, since they express attempts to capture the inwardness of some objective reality, discerned in and through sensory experience. They are not straightforward appearances of demonic beings, whom the seer simply portrays in their objective reality. And they are not purely artistic creations, since they are discerned as channels of spiritual power and as matrices of values upon which the discerning self is to pattern itself.

The primal gods (or powers, at a less individualized level) are revelatory of a depth and inwardness to experienced reality, of the limiting powers which bound human life (powers of fate, disease, fortune, and death). Such experiences of spirit in and through temporal events are given a personal form by imaginative transformation, perhaps in dreams or states of possession. These imaginative forms, the figures of the gods or spirits, can provide exemplary patterns for human life, in which devotees can participate. They are charismatic channels of Divine power which bring integration and well-being to human life, transforming selves by the mediation of sacred power. The figures of the gods reveal what the inner nature of being is, its spiritual basis and purpose. They set out a pattern of what human life must be in relation to the spiritual source. They show how the goal of a true human life may be achieved.

In all this, however, it must be acknowledged that, from the viewpoint of a scientific culture, primal religion contains much that is morally crude, scientifically false, and spiritually restricting. Its imaginative work is performed by people whose ignorance of modern physics and cosmology is almost total, and whose moral views are unsystematically mingled with practices of magic and witchcraft which hardly bear scientific scrutiny. Primal believers have not yet felt the need to amend their basic religious views by being confronted with independent and critical thought, which the meeting of diverse cultures and the growth of technology has forced most of the developed world to do.

If one speaks of revelation in such a context, one is speaking of theophanies which take place within a specific cultural tradition. The free play of poetic imagination has a large role, both in the primitive personalization of spiritual powers and in its subsequent elaboration in myth and ritual, which give it more definite shape and fit it into a larger narrative cosmology of the realm of the gods. But there are occasions of spiritual discernment, in the lives of specially sensitive people, on the basis of which a relationship to spiritual powers, and a participation in the spiritual world, becomes available to those ready to respond to it.

What is the reality behind this imaginative transformation of perceived reality and the ritual transformations of self which it enables? One can see the growth of religious thought in somewhat the same way as one sees the growth of scientific thought. There have been many false and useless theories in science. Alchemists pursued a vain quest to turn stones into gold for many years; the hypothetical substance, phlogiston, supposed to exist in inflammable bodies, proved to be imaginary; Newton's laws were not as all-embracing as he supposed. Theories have been invented and discarded, so that what one sees is something like the free invention of theories and their testing by experiment.

So in religion one might expect that there would be many false and useless theories. Ritual sacrifices among the Aztecs were not necessary to make the sun rise every morning; mental disorders are not caused by demon-possession; spirits do not cause death by casting malign spells. Again one sees a free invention of theories about the relation of spiritual powers to human life and their testing by experience. But there is this major difference, that religion is a matter of relationship to ultimate powers and values; it is not a matter of discovering laws of regular succession. Nature is a passive object for human experimentation; but religion is concerned with the relationship with spirit, and the powers with which it attempts to deal are active and commanding.

What people are trying to do is to conceive most adequately the pattern of their relationships with an underlying spiritual realm which finds expression both in the external world and within the self. As G. E. Swanson puts it, when ‘primitives’ distinguish the supernatural from the natural, they are supposing that ‘behind natural events lies the supernatural—a realm of potentialities and purposes of which natural events are but concretions or expressions’.55 Swanson gives a Durkheimian account of the genesis of such a belief. Suppose, however, that there is such an underlying realm; it will still be the case that it must be apprehended and conceived by human minds which have a very restricted understanding of the nature of the physical world, and which rarely press abstract questions to precisely specified and coherent conclusions. (They are clouded, like all human minds, by passion and prejudice, land make no clear distinctions between the religious, the ethical, the aesthetic, the political, and the scientific forms of intellectual activity. It will scarcely be surprising if the gods are construed as powers which directly cause physical happenings. Such powers are manifold and related to one another in poetically stylized rather than conceptually ordered ways. They are often either tribal war gods or malignant demons, which are often used to bolster the power or prestige of specific tribes or tribal organizations.

All these things result from the fact that it is human minds and imaginations which are seeking to interpret the confusing and dangerous world in which they find themselves. That does not mean that there are no active spiritual powers, that all religion is a matter of human free creation. It means that spiritual powers will be encountered and interpreted by means of available conceptual resources, which may be very inadequate to their objects. Of course, what the theologian would like to do is to get beyond the myths to the underlying reality, so as to say just what is adequate or inadequate about these interpretations. But the inescapable fact is that one cannot achieve an interpretation-free interpretation!

It does not follow that there is no reality apart from the interpretations imposed by language—an absurd supposition, since language is a recent acquisition of human animals. Nor does it mean that language cannot be compared with reality at all, to assess its adequacy. If the belief is proposed that deaths are always due to witchcraft, as the Azande hold or have traditionally held,56 this can and should be tested by experiment and observation. But it is not a simple matter to achieve an adequate conceptual understanding of very complex realities. It is virtually certain that we do not yet have the fully adequate understanding from which standpoint all less adequate interpretations could be judged. Nevertheless it is possible to speak of more and less adequate interpretations. More adequate views are those which are aware of and can include a greater range of facts, which avoid conflict with well-established knowledge and which survive the rational tests of consistency and generalization to similar cases.57

By these simple criteria, the beliefs of most primal religions are clearly inadequate in many ways. They involve false theoretical beliefs (about the causes of illness and natural phenomena); they do not seriously attempt to construct a general or systematic account of the full range of human religious concepts or experiences (being mostly limited to local tribal experience); and they are rarely concerned to attempt a rational defence of their fundamental beliefs (appealing simply to the authority of tradition). This does not mean that they have no spiritual insight and power, and the fact that in some societies there is a revival of tribal practices—especially in Africa and in Amerindian societies—shows that this power is not extinct.

The strengths of primal religion lie in its sense of the intimate unity of humans and nature, its feel for the natural rhythms of the world and for the importance of cultural particularity and continuity of social tradition. Harold Turner has estimated that between 12 and 20 million people are involved in new religious developments in primal societies, which usually arise out of a mixture of interaction with world faiths like Christianity and a reaction against them in favour of tribal traditions.58 In this context, revivals of primal traditions rebel against what are perceived to be patriarchal, colonial, and anthropomorphic images imposed by missionaries, with the associated destruction of natural habitats and tribal ways of life. In fact there can be no return to the old culture, and what happens is the birth of new forms of counter-culture, giving the religious traditions quite a new significance. They come be forms of protest or opposition, rather than legitimations of an immemorial tradition. In this way a new merger of old and new is possible, which may give a rich insight into the spiritual realm.

In Western countries there is today a revival of what is termed ‘paganism’. But this is no longer truly a primal religion, since it is consciously reconstructed in opposition to what are felt to be dead or patriarchal traditions, and reconstitutes the old nature-gods in the image of new ecological concerns.59 Human sacrifice and fertility rituals are de-emphasized, and new, if non-standard, scientific hypotheses (like the ‘Gaia’ hypothesis) are utilized to frame a general world-view. Such movements are genuinely new religions, syncretistically picking up elements from many existing sources in the attempt to construct a new synthesis. An interesting question for Western culture is whether one or more of the older traditions can contain such reconstructions, in any form, or whether they will come to constitute genuinely new traditions. In any case, one is dealing here with distinctively twentieth-century, conscious constructions which seek to take account of modern science, albeit in strange and sometimes perverse ways; the genuine primal traditions are no longer living options for metropolitan and technologically based life.

When one seeks to say what is true in such traditions, one is inevitably interpreting them from one's own standpoint. This is not merely a matter of subjective prejudice, even though one can hardly claim to have the ultimate undisputable truth oneself. But it is clear that we have much more genuine knowledge about how the world works, particularly about the existence of rational laws of nature. The development and success of the natural sciences has made fundamental differences to our understanding of the physical environment of human life. We have access to a great deal of information about the beliefs and experiences of many societies. The growth of historical knowledge and of techniques of historical criticism has greatly modified the way we regard the past and its authority for us. We have a long tradition of sophisticated critical thought which has tried and discarded many philosophical formulations, learning much in the process about the tendencies of the human mind, its limits and its imperfections. A much greater stress has consequently been placed upon adopting questioning attitudes to traditional sources of authority and insisting on more than appeal to custom in moral and religious beliefs. And within the Judaeo-Christian tradition one has a long history of theological reflection and development, which claims to be a refinement of the primal ideas of Middle Eastern tribal faiths of the second millennium BCE. There is a general acceptance that religious beliefs need to be continually modified in new contexts, which leads to an expectation of change rather than of immutability in many aspects of religious life.

From such a standpoint, one is bound to see primal traditions as early and relatively unreflective attempts at interpreting human interaction with the spiritual realm. Such traditions have lasted a very long time; but they have not usually elaborated any sort of systematic world-view which is capable of integration with modern scientific understanding. One implication of this, of some significance for theology, is that God (assuming there is a God) has not revealed the Divine nature and purpose clearly at all ages and times. Nor does God constantly, universally, and unvaryingly impel an improving perception of the Divine Being. For primal religion remains a realm of ambiguous polymorphous gods and spirits, approached through traditional rites and narratives whose greatest virtue is their antiquity and immutability. God does not destroy or override or challenge these interpretations, but presumably relates to primal peoples through their own symbols and rites, which are natural to the culture, temperament, and history of those peoples. One might expect that there will be a certain discontinuity and particularity about Divine revelation, as those who accept new ideas and beliefs conflict with those who cherish the ancient traditions. One cannot say that God is always on the side of the new, since new deviations from truth are always possible. At the same time it is to be expected that as knowledge of the world grows, many revisions of old beliefs will become necessary. Thus it is that one may expect Divine revelation to retain its ambiguity and lack of universal acceptance. It cannot be expected to come smoothly and evenly throughout the world, like one great progressive stream of new insight. It may rather be seen in sudden startling reconceptions of old ideas, sometimes in renewals of old traditions and sometimes in their rejection. It will be likely to be piecemeal, discontinuous, and ambiguous, even though taken in general it can be seen as developing from a context of primal interpretations towards a more rationally developed insight into the Divine nature.

9. Dimensions of Religion in Primal Traditions

It is also important to stress that change in religion is not merely, or even mainly, an intellectual matter. Theologians are naturally interested in the intellectual element of religion, but they cannot neglect the context of the forms of life within which beliefs are formulated. Ninian Smart's formulation of six dimensions of religion60—the doctrinal, mythological, ethical, ritual, experiential, and social—is very helpful in bringing out this wider context of belief. If one looks at primal traditions using these categories, then it is clear that they are weakest doctrinally. That is, their world-view is largely false, being based on antiquated views about the heavenly spheres, about natural causality, and about human history. Their belief content is almost wholly mythological; that is, it is found in stories of the gods and spirits. But a study of these myths reveals their symbolic character, with the gods as personifications of powers expressed in natural forms, which recur throughout many primal societies. Thus the moon is often associated with the theme of death and resurrection, as it dies and is renewed; it is often associated with the feminine, through its relation to the menstrual cycle, and with the sea in its destructive and life-giving aspects. The sun, rising from earth and descending to it again in its daily cycle, devourer of the moon and bringer of light, symbolizes powers of distance and brightness too great to look upon. In similar ways the natural world becomes the carrier of spiritual resonances; and the whole complex can be seen as conveying an underlying theme of death to human egoism and rebirth to a participation in a wider, all-embracing Divine Life—a theme found from the Aboriginal rites of central Australia to the Orphic mysteries of Hellenistic Greece.61 It is at this level that one can see how primal myths can carry a spiritual content not wholly dissimilar to that of the canonical traditions, enabling individuals to share in the spiritual power which is expressed in the symbolic representation of natural powers, so that spiritual death and rebirth, worship and participation, quest and integration, find a place in these traditions as elsewhere. One must, however, accept the general criticism made by Plato and Greek humanists of the irrational and immoral behaviour of the gods. While these myths can and do carry a spiritual content, they lack the rational coherence and moral discrimination which might protect such symbolic systems from destructive misuse.

With regard to the ethical dimension of religion, primal religions usually have a markedly ‘other-directed’ ethic, stressing the importance of conformity to social custom and of adhering strictly to ritual practices like avoiding contact with blood, lighting fires in the right way or at the right time, and avoiding certain foods. Many such rules are to be found in the Jewish Torah, where they have been incorporated into a set of rules for remembering the presence of God at all times. The rules against mixing different kinds of cloth, mixing meat and milk, and the rules of ritual uncleanness are primitive taboos, probably based on the danger of confusing distinct categories of beings or of becoming involved in bodily disintegration,62 which illustrate the lack of clear distinction between morality and ritual or sacred law in primal traditions. Some of these laws, if put into practice today, would be immoral—the stoning of witches and homosexuals, the extermination of whole tribes, including women and children, and the death penalty for idolatry are good examples. What has happened with the Torah is that it has been seen as a living tradition of interpretation, in which particular rules must be seen in the context of governing principles enshrined in the Torah itself. No one today in the tradition of orthodox Judaism would advocate stoning to death, and even the most severe would see such a punishment as a harsh measure for dealing with a local situation in which the faith was endangered. In new situations, new applications must be found, guided by the primary rule of loving God and one's neighbour as oneself.63

In fact the prophetic tradition was responsible for making morality an important and integral aspect of religious practice, rather than something subsidiary to ritual practice. There are traces in the Torah of earlier attitudes of a magical nature, avoiding contact with the dead or with skin-diseases and prohibiting the eating of borderline species of animal (with cloven hooves but not chewing the cud, such as pigs). But they have been subordinated to commands of justice and mercy, and have been reinterpreted as reminders of the distinctiveness of the Jewish calling to love and obey God and of religion's concern with integration and wholeness of body and soul.

With regard to the fourth, ritual dimension, primal traditions often adhere to magical views, according to which the ritual has a causal efficacy in bringing about fertility, rain, or sunrise. The gods, it was said in Sumer, created humans to save them the work of tilling the fields, and so that humans could feed them with sacrifices.64 Again, there are traces of this in the Bible, with God saying that he enjoys the smell of a good sacrifice.65 But the sacrificial ritual of Leviticus does not see sacrifice as feeding God or as propitiating the anger of God. Rather, sacrifice becomes a means of thanksgiving and praise and fellowship. The only propitiatory rituals restore the relationship between God and his people, and do not automatically remove sin (though the Yom Kippur scapegoat rite is probably a relic of a magical substitution ritual66). When it escapes its magical connotations completely, sacrifice becomes an expression of a death to self and a birth of God within the self, the transition from destruction to wholeness and integration.

In the experiential dimension, primal traditions often emphasize the aspect of dread and terror before the powers of nature, so that only carefully prepared shamans can penetrate to the ‘great loneliness’ where the spirits live. Again, this aspect is present in the Bible, where the unfortunate Uzzah is killed because he touched the Ark of the Covenant.67 In the Jewish tradition, God always remains a proper object of dread. But one can trace a development from early notions of automatic destruction coming on those who approach God's presence to a much more moralized conception of God as showing anger only to those who devote themselves to injustice, and offering mercy ‘to thousands of generations of those who love me’.68 Thus the arbitrary outbursts of Divine power I which characterize much primal religion, and in the face of which taboos must be rigorously observed, is transmuted into the judgement of God upon human evil. Further, the Divine power which at first is obtained by magical incantations comes to be seen as that drawing towards goodness which is the true nature of the Divine.

Finally, the social function of primal religions is usually to sustain the tribe and subordinate the individual to tribal custom, in opposition to those who are are outside the tradition. While the biblical tradition is concerned with the survival of a group of tribes, it also moves on to a universal concern that one God of heaven and earth should be worshipped by all, and that the whole earth should be blessed through the children of Abraham.69 It is in Leviticus, that most austere of law books, that the great command to love the resident alien, not only the fellow Jew, is heard.70 If some of the later prophets fell short of this command, at least it had been implanted firmly into the tradition, to come to the fore at a later time.

It is clear that one cannot view the primal religions uncritically. They are subject, as all religions must be, to rational and moral criticism as well as to a form of internal religious criticism which penetrates beneath the forms and rituals to the heart of religion in a supremely integrating personal experience. Yet they need not be seen as wholly false, demonic, or merely superstitious. In them, under their very various forms, one can find the possibility of a positive relating of human life to the spiritual realm which is expressed in the world as a whole. Their concern for well-being through ritual practice, for knowledge of the spiritual through ascetic preparation, and for attention to the utterances of mediums of the spiritual realm as vehicles of revelation provides the foundation for later religious development.


10. Revelation as Divine Persuasion

Revelation comes to human beings who are believed to be in a privileged position in relation to spiritual value and power. It becomes manifest through an impact on one or more of the main areas of human experience—reflective and imaginative thought, immediate affective or quasi-perceptual experience, or cognitive and volitional capacity. In the primal religions, revelation can take form in oracular utterances or spirit-possessions, directing natural thought-processes in extraordinary ways. It can come in the form of dreams and visions, experiences which are available only to those prepared by special training, discipline, and prayer. Or it can come through extraordinary manifestations of spiritual power, whether as a power of divination of the future through quasi-magical practices or as the manifestation of a spirit through a providential event in tribal history. Oracle, vision, and empowerment are the three main channels of revelation, by which the suprasensory realm discloses its nature or purposes to human communities.

These three channels can be found in the earliest strands of the biblical tradition, which show the change from a primal to a canonical form of religion. In that tradition, the oracular element is particularly dominant, and provides a useful case-study for ideas of revelation which are amongst the earliest recorded. In the biblical records one finds references to bands of ‘prophets’ who seem very similar to the shamanic figures of tribal religions. They sang and danced in ecstatic frenzy and spoke in inspired utterances when the spirit of God descended upon them.71 Many prophets claimed to speak the ‘words of the Lord’, and often they contradicted one another. It seems that they were soothsayers, men and women who sought a word from Yahveh, divining what was to come. Jeremiah 28 tells how the prophets Hananiah and Jeremiah disputed publicly about what the ‘word of the Lord’ was. Thus one should not see the prophets as solitary individuals who always speak infallibly and clearly. Rather, there are many prophets throughout Israel, all seeking visions and words from God, in dream, trance, or prayer, and differing in their interpretations and sayings. The tests suggested for a true prophet are rather crude—one must see if what they predict comes true. However, since any wise prophet will make predictions which are rather imprecise, the test is difficult to apply. Further, there is an ineliminable element of personal judgement in deciding whether someone has indeed an insight into human affairs and Divine intentions that suggests a supernatural ordering of his or her thoughts.

It is impossible for all these conflicting prophets to be truly inspired by God, and the biblical editors had to deal with this problem. They suggested that only one line of prophets is truly inspired; the rest are deceived either by Satan or by God himself. Prophets, unless they are mere frauds, feel that visions are words which come to them, which they passively receive; they are not rationally thought out. But of course these visions and words come as a result of and in the context of the thoughts and experiences of the prophets. Like the inspirations of poets, they use the materials provided by the mind to convey information. The trouble is that the mind is a delicate instrument, and much of this alleged information is quite spurious.

That, however, is not really surprising, as most literary works are bad, too. How does one recognize a great work of literature? There is no infallible test; but one speaks in terms of sensitivity, exposure to a wide range of literature, skill in discernment, and so on. Disputes are ineliminable. Yet some (though very little) literature carries profound insights into human life. So with prophecy, most of it is inferior, even deceitful or demented. Yet some of it, perhaps, conveys great insights into the nature and purpose of God.

But is one speaking here just of insight, creative genius in human minds, superior gifts of discernment? Are gods not really speaking? The model of ‘gods speaking’, even though this is how shamans and prophets typically describe what happens, is much too literal and anthropomorphic. It fails to describe adequately the ambiguous nature of prophetic experience, the fact that most of it is erroneous and that there is no assured way of telling true from false, except with hindsight. What we have are, precisely, human insights, or alleged insights, which have come in dreams or visions, and which are felt as visions or auditions from the gods. The mind is raised to new powers of vision, judgement, and insight by powers from beyond itself. We might think of a god shaping images and concepts found in human minds; yet always hampered by passion and prejudice, by cultural and conceptual context. As God acts in the world, so God acts on human minds to inspire their visionary capacities. But rarely, one might think, does God find a mind which is attuned to the Divine reality in such a way as to communicate Divine purposes adequately.

Prophets claim to be channels of Divine communication, by providing concepts and images which can express God's nature and purposes, which can be used by God as such expressions. God does not put thoughts into a vacant mind. God shapes the thoughts which are there, in so far as the mind is receptive to Divine influence, to express something of the Divine nature. In this situation, the prophet needs (1) a cultural context which provides appropriate concepts; (2) a historical context which makes possible the discontinuous jump to a new and yet emergent level of understanding; (3) a temperament which has the quasi-aesthetic capacity, the moral wisdom, and practical insight to frame these concepts in new and creative ways; (4) a deep obedience to the Divine will. Divine communication is always indirect, in this sense of embodying itself in human forms of thought at a particular historical time and in a particular culture. God can be thought of as using the conceptual and imaginative mental contents that exist at a particular time to deepen insight into the Divine Being and purpose. That active guidance will always respect the freedom which humans can exercise either to hinder or ease this Divine interaction.

So if one asks what God does, in primal religions, one might suggest that God shapes the visions and thoughts of prophet-figures to give insight into the spiritual nature of reality and a sense of participation in the spiritual realm. But that shaping is limited by the magical world-view characteristic of such traditions and by the fantasy-images which are used as forms of social control in such societies. God is at work, but in an obscured and ambiguous way.

The study of primal traditions is of great theological interest because it leads one to concentrate on basic questions of the nature of revelation and of religious truth in a context broader than that of one's own tradition. It suggests that the perceived inadequacies of such traditions are likely to occur in various degrees in more developed traditions, too. It is implausible to suppose that God speaks only to the classical biblical prophets, and that he does so in an utterly distinctive and inerrant way, since prophetic experiences and utterances as they are recorded in the Hebrew Bible are so similar to those found in shamanistic and early prophetic traditions. Suppose one thinks of God as seeking to shape human images and thoughts so as to be a more adequate channel for conveying the Divine nature and purpose. Then it is quite plausible to think that only some cultures will provide the necessary materials for the discontinuous leap to new levels of insight which are required. I am not seeking here to invent some a priori model of revelation. It is rather a matter of looking at the phenomena of alleged revelation and asking what the best model of Divine revealing action seems to be, in the light of them. In the Hebrew Bible there is a marked similarity with shamanistic claims to possession by spirits or gods in visions and dreams, which suggests that any model of revelation should be broad enough to include the primal traditions, even though there is no written revelation in them. On the other hand, there is a revision and editing of these elements within a new prophetic belief in the existence of one holy, transcendent, personal agent-god which suggests an important discontinuity in the form of Divine revelation.

One might suggest that the prophets came to form a belief in the presence of such a God under the influence of Divine inspiration. That inspiration is not the placing of words in their minds, though false and true prophets alike often felt such words coming to them as if from an ‘outside’ source. It is the shaping of human thoughts to new insights, in ways always ambiguous and distorted by passion and prejudice, yet responsive to Divine leading. One is compelled to speak of such ambiguity within the Bible itself precisely because of the primitive elements which remain only partly digested within it, and because even some of the later, developed elements show a form of moral regression to racist and exclusive beliefs. The picture is not one of a clear moral truth shining unambiguously to dispel the dark clouds of paganism; but of a painful assent to new forms of insight, which are continually dragged back to become the slaves of nationalistic and exclusive passion.72 The model of revelation which best seems to account for this picture is the model of God as drawing human minds towards the Divine by persuasive influence, but not eliminating passion and prejudice from those minds and their apprehension of the Divine.73

There is a tendency to think that either God directly causes specific thoughts to occur in human minds, or it is all a matter of human imagination and projection. But if one thinks of revelation as a form of Divine action which is intended to bring about fuller knowledge of the Divine nature and purpose, it does not have to be the case that God simply inserts propositions into human minds. One may even say that God can often will what does not come about—namely, when God wills that free creatures obey the Divine will, and they refuse to do so, through their disobedience. In that sense one can speak of God intending to bring about a mental state of assent to an item of knowledge yet failing to do so; since what God intends is frustrated by human failure. Naturally, this can only happen if God primarily wills that humans should have such freedom; but if such a primary intention of God exists, it follows that instances of secondary Divine willing may be frustrated, and then what is taken to be revealed may not truly or in its totality be intended by God. Moreover, God may intend that humans come to certain imaginative insights with Divine co-operation, but by their own free reflection; and in that case God could be a contributory cause of new knowledge, though the exact content of that knowledge would be dependent on correct human response. Divine inspiration may be found in a heightening of natural ability or a guiding of attention in a certain direction, the genesis of a new idea or a deepening of concentration. But such influence is always resistible by inattention, passion, or prejudice; and even normal matters of background cultural belief and personal temperament will introduce factors which must be taken account of in any attempt to assess the authority of a ‘revealed text’ for subsequent ages.

If one thinks of Divine revelatory action in this complex way as a co-operative causality, dependent for its success on human faithfulness, but then contributing a real and positive factor to human efforts, one has a coherent model of revelation which is not a direct dictation model. My suggestion is that as one looks at the phenomena of primal religion, at the beginnings of prophecy and inspired utterances in many different societies, one is bound to reject any view that God directly dictates all of these revelations. One is logically bound to do so, because they contradict each other, and God does not utter contradictions. Furthermore, there is no convincing reason for supposing that only one of them is directly dictated, since they all put forward precisely the same sorts of evidential grounds for their claims to being revealed truth. There seems to be no one prophetic tradition that is free of moral restrictiveness and factual error, of elements of fantasy and authoritarianism mixed with the most elevated moral discernment and humility. So it seems to me that the most plausible view to take, if all these phenomena are not to be rejected as illusory, is that there is a Divine Spirit who interacts with human minds in appropriate contexts to inspire, guide, and shape their thinking towards a fuller insight into truth. If that is so, the most pressing problem for such an account is the problem of how one can tell which beliefs are products of Divine inspiration and which of human recalcitrance or myopia, and why fuller insights should come to some people and societies and apparently not to others. Those are problems which need to be faced. The discussion so far has tried to prepare the ground for an adequate response by locating the genesis of claims to revelation in the religious experience and practices of pre-literate societies, sketching some of the rational and moral criteria which can be properly applied to religious claims, and noting some of the factors which may make some traditions more amenable to Divine inspiration (if it exists) than others.

11. The Transition from Primal Faith

The picture of religion which a historical and anthropological study brings to light is one which places religion as a natural human activity developing over many centuries as homo sapiens became the dominant species on the planet. Worship of a suprasensory reality which is expressed in animals, rocks, trees, and awe-inspiring places seems to be a natural tendency of the human mind. Talcott Parsons writes: ‘This view that belief in the supernatural is universal has been completely confirmed by modern anthropology.’74 Primal religions seek to relate to this enveloping reality in ways which bring about good, in the form of health, victory, fertility, and successful hunting or planting. Through myths this reality is depicted in its particular historical and experiential relations to particular tribes. Through rituals the power of the spiritual realm is conveyed to the world. And through the inspired utterances of holy men and women relationship with the spirits is established and sustained. Revelation can be seen in primal traditions as the appearance to holy people in visions, possessions, and divination of powers and values mediated through natural phenomena in which people can share to help them to obtain good.

Given this general picture it is plausible for a theist to suggest that the Divine is actively disclosing its nature and purpose in many different primal religions, even though the beliefs of those religions conflict in many respects. At first it sounds impossible that God could be inspiring contradictory sets of beliefs; and it is impossible, if God is conceived as inserting correct beliefs into human minds. But if religious beliefs, like scientific, aesthetic, and moral beliefs, develop gradually in very different historical and cultural contexts, it is not at all surprising that they should differ. In the study of the natural world, there are many possible hypotheses for explaining why things happen and many different aspects of nature one could be interested in. In art, patterns of skill in creating sounds or colours can vary enormously, and yet be genuine expressions of aesthetic taste. In morality, patterns of social life and human relationships can be very varied and will naturally differ considerably between tropical rain forests and Arctic tundras. Diversity is the natural condition of human enquiry. Why should religion be very different? The gods will be imaginatively patterned on the differing histories of various tribes, and be modified by underlying beliefs about nature, canons of aesthetic taste, and social forms of life.

The existence of such important differences does not entail that all truths are relative to social conditions. There is, after all, a correct account of laws of physics, difficult though it is to achieve. There are canons of beauty which enable the discriminating critic to distinguish between good and bad art, even though there may be diverse standards of beauty which are being followed. There are basic moral truths about justice, honesty, and benevolence. So in religion it is reasonable to think that there must be some correct statements to be made about suprasensory reality, a source of the ultimate powers and values of being, even if it can be expressed in varied finite forms and can interact with human lives in various ways to bring them to fulfilment. The correct statement may be that no suprasensory reality exists, that it is a projection of the human psyche or social structure. An alternative hypothesis, which does not take all religious believers to be suffering from illusion, is to suggest that there is a suprasensory reality, conceived in many different ways, which co-operates to draw human imagination towards a fuller apprehension of its value and towards a conscious participation in its power. If so, it will do so in the context of what humans take to be values and of the sorts of power they seek, with all the ambiguities of human knowledge and motivation that entails.

In primal traditions, value is discerned through local and diverse valued objects and events; power is experienced in forms which sustain the flourishing of tribal groups. The trend to a more universal form of religion is inevitable, as concern grows for a comprehensive view of reality within which religious beliefs can take a coherent place. As different parts of the world increasingly come into contact with one another, the primal traditions naturally evolve into other forms. In world history this has happened in two main ways. The Semites developed a central controlling idea of the Divine as a moral and purposing Will, especially evidenced in the teachings of Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad. This tradition was strongly influenced by the Greek development of a rational theology in Plato and Aristotle especially, and by its rediscovery in thirteenth-century Europe. A very different development occurred in India. The basic human response to suprasensory reality was seen, not as a relation to a personal Will, but as conformity to an inherent order of the natural world, the dharma. Divine law was not seen in terms of Divine commands, but in terms of an immanent order of being, expressing the inner truth of the finite world. By the sixth century BCE the moral structure of reality which is so important for religion to discern was seen in the working-out of the law of karma and the theory of transmigration. These theories provided the basis upon which Aryan polytheism developed into a spirituality stressing the renunciation of desire as the key to enlightenment. This tradition passed into Asia. There it was strongly influenced by a religious interest which was centred on the ideas of an ordered harmony in nature and in society. Such a view encouraged a world-affirming and immanent spirituality of conformity with the flow of Being, in its natural and social expressions. It could be pointed out that the Asian group, from which Taoism and Confucianism sprang, is distinct enough to deserve separate treatment. But those faiths have in practice been so intermingled with the various forms of Indian thought that in my view they do not constitute a clearly diverse strand. While one should be aware of these ‘religions of harmony’, as of many other faiths outside the broad dichotomy just suggested, it is nevertheless helpful, I think, to adopt the broad classification into ‘mystical’ (Indian) and ‘prophetic’ (Semitic) religions which Friedrich Heiler proposed.75

In these traditions one can see a focusing of religious interest on central focal concepts of moral requirement, reflective reason, renunciation of desire, and wholistic harmony, respectively. The Semitic Judge of the World, the Greek Logos, the Indian desireless Self, and the Chinese cosmic harmony, represent four different images of the Supreme Power and Value of Being; each one unifies the diverse spiritual powers and values of the primal religions in a more or less coherent manner. The Greek and Chinese images have virtually been absorbed into the Semitic and Indian, though in the process they have changed the character of their host traditions. Thus Eastern Orthodox Christianity unites a Platonic philosophical idealism paradoxically with a tradition of Messianic Judaism. In the Eastern world, Zen Buddhism unites an Indian ascetic tradition paradoxically with a basically world-affirming monism. This capacity of apparently opposed strands to form new unities may suggest the thought of a further unification, triggered by the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, which has changed the context of all religious beliefs irreversibly. I shall be considering this possibility of a convergent spirituality later. But, whether or not it is found an acceptable or fruitful idea, it does not entail the view that all religions will become one super-religion. On the contrary, differences, both in belief and in practice, are likely to increase as individuals and communities become freer to develop their own forms of spirituality. It is rather that possibilities of interaction and co-operation may become apparent where previously one could only see destructive conflict and intolerance. The imperative of universalization, if fully accepted in religion, may change the way in which our very divergent religious beliefs are held and defended.

The idea of revelation has a different character for each of these four basic images. In the Semitic tradition, it naturally takes on the form of a personal communication, or ‘speaking’, in which a personal reality conveys information to humans. In the Greek tradition, the idea of revelation either disappears to be replaced by the notion of a wholly autonomous reason, or, in Orthodox Christianity, it is construed as a self-manifestation of the Supreme Good or intelligible Exemplar in a finite form. It was in this way that the Christian doctrine of incarnation developed certain tendencies of the Semitic tradition in a new direction, moving from seeing God's Word as not only an external sign but as a fully intentional self-expression of the Divine in finite form. The Indian tradition suggests a model of revelation as an experience, authoritatively taught by those who have attained it, of the non-duality of all things. For this view, the idea of a distinct Divine Person, though not wholly lacking, is seen as an appearance of a deeper underlying unity beyond all distinctions. The avatara of Vishnu are primarily teachers who come to impart the truth of a deeper non-duality. And the Asian tradition is most conductive to seeing revelation as a coming to fully conscious expression of the laws of being, whether conceived as laws of the natural order, as in Taoism, or of the social order (the ‘way of heaven’) in Confucianism.

It may be held that the idea of revelation belongs only to the first tradition, since it analytically means the active communication of information from a supernatural and personal agent. This is, however, an unduly restrictive use of the concept. The root idea of revelation is the manifesting or disclosing of something which is normally hidden. One can think of a person with privileged access to information revealing it to someone else. One can think of a person revealing something about themselves that no one else knows. One can also think of a human agent revealing truths about the world which are known by a special mode of access, and one can think, in a less personalist but still active way, of the hidden nature of true being revealing itself in human awareness in a special sort of experience. There are many possible models of revelation, and what one needs to do is to examine not only the idea of ‘revelation’ but also its cognates in the main religious traditions, so as to gain a broader impression of its possible meanings.

From a global perspective, revelation is often less a matter of the inerrant giving of propositions, and more a matter of the disclosure of facets of the Supreme Reality which mediate its power and value in ways appropriate to particular social and cultural contexts. Such a revelation need not be in and of itself propositional. That is, it need not consist in the entertaining of and assent to true propositions, which are simply given by an authoritative source. Of course, propositional beliefs will be entailed by revelation, but the content of such propositions will often be very unclear. It is in fact precisely the revealed traditions in many of the great religious traditions of the world which insist on covering the nature of the ultimately real with an agnostic or apophatic cloud. ‘The way that can be spoken of is not the constant way; the name that can be named is not the constant name.’76 ‘The goal of our search is beyond all knowledge; it is surrounded on all sides by a wall of incomprehensibility.’77

If, in this paradoxical way, revelation is of that which essentially remains mystery, beyond full conceptual clarification, it will be very difficult to insist upon very precise conceptual truths as central to revelation. Even those concepts which are taken to be revealed will often be cryptic, carrying hidden meanings which can only be touched upon but never finally unravelled by contemplation and prayer. This means that reason will never have the last word in religion; but it does not mean that reason will have no part to play. The proper function of reason is precisely to clarify its own limits, to warn where those limits are overstepped and to point to the rationality of an ultimate mystery where it cannot reach. Rational reflection on religion not only warns empirical disciplines when they seek to eliminate or articulate too precisely the realm of mystery. It also warns the religious when they seem to turn the mystery into pseudo-science, to confuse unfathomable goodness with primitive science or primitive morality.

In the world of ancient Greece such rational reflection began with criticism of the immoral antics of the Hellenic pantheon and with the development of rational schemes of understanding the natural world. Greek religion, like most primal religion, had its oracles and divinations; its visions and dreams; its miracles and healings. But the many gods remained essentially divinities of place or of a particular form of activity. They never integrated into the developing view of nature as a rational system; and they never came into essential relation with the concerns for personal virtue and social justice which became important for the Greek city-states. Religion remained in the area of personal experience, with the gods as freely chosen spirits who might help in the attainment of various projects. Or it remained in the area of state ceremonial, with the gods as guardians of the polis and symbols of local cultures and ways of life that were not amenable to rational enquiry. In such a religious form of life, there was little or no rational criticism or moral challenge. When Plato constructs his vision of the Good, in the Republic, as the source of all beings and the ultimate value, to be known only in direct contemplative intuition, there is no religious framework into which that vision fits. Religious rituals remain options for the Platonist, not essentially connected with the pursuit of goodness and truth and beauty. In Aristotle it is even more the case that myths and rituals are for the artisans, while the true philosopher will pursue the life of virtue and the contemplation of the most excellent of beings, the Prime Mover, in isolation from any social form of religious life.

Thus in ancient Greece the practice of religion and the visions of the philosophers fell apart. The gods of Greece died because the best intellectual thought of the day was not able to give any rational account of the practices associated with the Greek pantheon. In the primal traditions the spirits were living and powerful forces; but they belong to an age to which, after the development of the life of critical reason, there can be no return. The spirit of that lost age is captured well in Rudolf Otto's description of a ‘primal numinous awe, which has been undoubtedly sufficient in itself in many cases to mark out “holy” or “sacred” places, and make of them spots of aweful veneration’.78 As Otto remarks, such a sense is schematized in the history of religion by rational and moral reflection. There is no turning back from such reflection, since it marks a decisive advance in human understanding of the world in general. Yet it threatens to destroy the primitive religious sense, or at least to marginalize it to some vaguely romantic fringe of life for those who luxuriate in such feelings.

Despite this, the sense of the worship of the natural powers of things, places, and events is a very natural one; it carries with it a sense of reverence for the world and of the unity and interconnectedness of all things, which is indispensable to the religious consciousness. As one observes the cyclical movements of the stars and planets one may have a sense of the order and grandeur of the cosmos. As one observes the cycles of the seasons, of the death and rebirth of vegetation, of the way in which all life seems to sacrifice itself as food for new life, of the passage of human life from childhood to maturity to old age and inevitable death, one can come to have a feeling for the self-sacrificial, constantly renewing powers of life, and personify that feeling in the figure of the Great Mother, from whose body all living things come and to which they all return. And one can find, in rituals of the renewal of life, a sense of oneness with this Great Mother which conquers the fear of death and enables one to participate in the unending life which is beyond individuality and difference, yet which is expressed in the innumerable names and forms of the finite world.79

In the rites and myths of many primal religions, one can find these things expressed, as well as in the mysteries of Eleusis and of the Sumerian gods. In the modern world, there is a certain nostalgia for paganism, in the attempted recovery of a sense of reverence for nature and in the tendency to see all gods as partial expressions of an underlying cosmic diversity-in-unity, a rich pattern of which humans are only part. Yet the primal religions have historically had little power to resist the great traditions of the Semitic and Indian streams, and attempts to renew them are rather self-conscious inventions which rarely convey the power of their ancient archetypes. In addition, there are powerful criticisms to be made of such traditions which make them hard to defend in any culture which cares to find in its religious beliefs a certain degree of consistency, integrating power, coherence with well-established scientific knowledge, adequacy to the most profound depths of spiritual experience and reflection, and rationally defensible morality.

12. The Prophetic Critique

The Hebrew prophets were particularly scathing of polytheism, as was Muhammad after them. ‘The house of Israel shall be shamed… who say to a tree, “You are my father”, and to a stone, “You gave me birth.”’80 Any respectable Canaanite priest would presumably point out that stones and trees and temple images were not themselves taken to be Divine, but to be local expressions of the natural powers to which humans are kin. As symbols, our devotion can be given to them just as it can be given, in the Orthodox Christian traditions, to icons, which are thought to convey sacred power without being Divine. However, if one presses the question of just what these natural powers are, the answer is not so clear. If they are literally finite and perhaps impersonal powers, then in revering them one may indeed be revering natural power and beauty. That is better than despising or ignoring them. But are they the ultimate determining powers of human life and destiny? Once we accept our unity with nature, we have yet to ask whether there is any power beyond that of nature itself which determines the character of existence. Nature itself, after all, is neither moral, personal, purposive, nor perfect in being.

Polytheism is incapable of giving any foundation for the rationality or intelligibility of the natural order. The many gods and spirits act unpredictably and for motives impossible to systematize. Magical mechanisms of control of such spirits, relying on principles of imitation (as when one sprinkles water to bring rain) or of contagion (as when one tries to influence another by keeping a piece of their clothing) are notoriously inefficient. Such attempts to discover underlying causal principles have been wholly replaced by the discovery of the supremely elegant laws of nature which modern science has made. Indeed, modern science only began when the fear of the sacred in nature, of spirits in trees and caves, was overcome, and nature could become objectively investigated by experimental interference. Nature had to be desacralized for science to begin; and few can seriously doubt that science has told us much more about the physical world than all the myths of all the aeons before science.81

However, the danger that springs from the experimental imperative is that we shall begin to treat nature as a mere mechanism and thus forget our own place in nature and destroy its beauty and particularity, forgetting reverence for the sake of mere utility. This danger is not bred by monotheism, but by the rejection of theism, which does indeed leave the machine of nature as a blind and purposeless mechanism, to be manipulated as we wish, without any inherent ends of its own. Such a rejection coincided with the rise of science; but what is needed to correct it is not a return to the paganism which divinizes nature but a return to the theism which honours it as God's creation.

The belief that nature is the creation of one transcendent spirit implies that nature exists because it is willed and desired by that spirit. Nature exists for a purpose; it is to be honoured because God honours it as the expression of Divine desires; to fail to revere its beauty and elegance would be to fail to honour the Creator's purpose. Moreover, this purpose is expressed in one intelligible order, not in a riot of competing powers. It honours nature more to see it as a supremely rational and beautiful order than to see it as a realm of competing spirit-powers, without ultimate goal. Even more important, the order of a God-created nature is a moral order; it subordinates the merely natural to moral ends, to intrinsically worthwhile goals and ideals.

The sense of unity with nature which the primal traditions can give is in danger of achieving a sub-personal identity, in which the distinctively moral, rational, and individual capacities of persons are devalued or lost. There is rarely the thought of an ascent to a more fulfilled form of personal life. Rather, the individual and personal is dissolved into the general interconnectedness of all things, where there is neither subject nor object, but suffusion into the cosmic pattern. The Hebrew prophets, in protesting against the idolatry of their Canaanite neighbours, were protesting against such a loss of individual responsibility, particularity, and temporality. Yahveh, the god who stands above nature as its creator, sets a moral goal for it, and commands rational persons to become co-creators in achieving that goal. If nature is, as Tennyson wrote, ‘red in tooth and claw’, it is for humans to oppose nature in the name of goodness and love. If nature is a long cycle of death and rebirth, within which all things have a function but no special dignity, it is for humans to assert their own transcendence of nature, precisely by claiming and giving infinite respect to personhood, in themselves and others. If nature suggests the necessity of human sacrifice to appease the spirits of famine and earthquake and produce fertility, it is for humans to drive such spirits from their imagined habitations and insist that human life can never be used as a means to an end. In a word, prophetic religion stands for the transcendence of personal, ethical, and individual life, over against the reduction of human personhood to the rhythms of time and nature, and the ritual control of fate and fertility which the nature religions seemed to stress.

Primal traditions may protest at the intolerant moralism of the prophets, at the personalization and moral idealization of transcendent reality and at the division of being into dualities of good and evil, spiritual and physical, God and nature, human and animal, subject and object. Yet what the prophets see in the religious cults around them, and what they are attempting to cleanse from their own tradition, is the scandal of human sacrifice to appease angry and capricious gods, the degradation of ritual prostitution and sexual promiscuity in order to assure fertility, the irrational use of magic charms and spells to tell the future, avert evil, or bring it on others, the spuriousness of claims to ancient and secret knowledge which gives initiates a spiritual superiority, and the dissociation of religious cult from moral demand, which gives to it at best a utilitarian and self-serving function and at worst a bestial and destructive function in pursuit of wealth and power over others. One can thus see the eighth-century BCE prophetic movement in Israel and Judah as an attempt to raise the nature cults of the time to the level of faith in a personal and moral creator, who requires exclusive worship simply because there is, in the end, only one creator of all things.

13. Semitic Monotheism

The prophetic perception of a personal and moral God marks a decisive change in the religious consciousness. Yet that change still bears the marks of its beginnings in the primal traditions of nomadic desert religion. When attempting to understand the Hebrew Bible, a Scripture of fundamental importance to Jews, Christians, and Muslims, it is illuminating to place it in the context of the primal religions of the Middle East, from which it arose. It contains many instances of primal practices, which have been taken over and incorporated into a new conceptual scheme which begins to speak of one transcendent almighty god with a moral purpose for the world. A good example is the serpent-god, Nehushtan. In Numbers 21; 5–9, Moses makes a bronze serpent set on a pole, which is a magical device for curing snake-bite. This came to be worshipped until the time of King Hezekiah, who destroyed it as an idol.82 The snake is an object of worship in many primal cults. It is the bringer of death, since its bite can be fatal. But it is also the symbol of renewed life, since it sloughs its skin and is reborn in a new body. The snake thus becomes the symbol of death and rebirth to a higher life, and it seems obvious that one has in this passage the construction of a magical cult-object representing the serpent-god or power of death and renewal.

In the edited account, it is God who sends snakes to kill the people for grumbling, and who tells Moses to make the serpent; but why God should choose such a very peculiar piece of mimetic magic to bring healing, especially when it gave rise to idolatry for generations, is wholly unexplained. Most anthropologists would probably immediately conclude that this is an ancient devotion to the snake-god as the god of healing (a similar association between snakes and healing is found in Asclepius, Greek god of healing, and his double-serpent staff), which the editor has tried to incorporate into the narrative of Mosaic monotheism. The story that God sent snakes to bite people is likely to be a rather implausible explanation of why a serpent was worshipped in this revised religious context. A number of amulets dating from the first century BCE,83 picturing Yahveh as a god with legs made of serpents, suggest that the snake-cult was closely intermingled with the Yahveh cult for hundreds of years.

There are many other ancient religious practices which have been similarly reinterpreted in a monotheistic framework by later editing. One is the use of Urim and Thummim, which were perhaps stones engraved with symbolic markings and used as lots to be cast to provide oracles of victory or defeat in war.84 Such a discernment of good or bad luck by an oracular practice, whether of cutting up entrails of sheep or throwing dice to be interpreted by a prophet or priest, is widespread in primal religions. Again, in Genesis 12, when Abraham visited Egypt, the Pharaoh's household was afflicted with plagues because the Pharaoh slept with Abraham's wife, even though he did not know who she was because Abraham had lied to him. This is an example of disease being caused by the breaking of a ritual taboo, even when one is unaware of it, and expresses an early view of sin as a sort of contagious impurity.

It is quite clear that according to 2 Kings 23, the kings of Judah had hired priests to burn incense to Baal, god of fertility, to the sun, moon, and constellations; and that altars to the sun-god and to other gods were to be found in the Jerusalem Temple. The prophet Ezekiel found women at the north gate of the Temple weeping for Tammuz, the Sumerian vegetation-god.85 Of course the biblical record is that these were deviations in Israel, to be brutally exterminated; but it seems that the distinction of early Hebrew religion from its surrounding cults was not always very clear, and was perhaps only definitively established by the later prophets.

The prophets did, however, introduce a new note into Middle Eastern religious practices. They opposed all fertility cults, which they held to be associated with human sacrifice, cultic prostitution, and devotion to the Great Goddess, devourer of her children as well as mother of all living things, brutal and cruel as well as beneficent to her devotees. The message they brought was of one holy and transcendent God—a sky warrior-father instead of the earth mother—who demanded justice and mercy and remained essentially distinct from his people. At the same time that nature was desacralized, Divinity was moralized. In fact these two go together, since nature is essentially amoral, and to give nature itself sacred power is to sacralize forces of fertility and survival at the expense of all those rational and humanizing values which oppose the more ruthless and destructive natural processes. As the biologist T. H. Huxley perceived, the processes of nature must often be opposed for the sake of justice or altruism.86 If there is a fundamentally moralizing power in objective reality, it cannot be identified with nature. In this way one can understand how the Hebrew prophets, impelled by an intense demand for justice, strongly rejected the worship of the Great Goddess, who was taken to represent nature and the natural cycles of life. In her place they proposed a wholly transcendent deity, not to be identified with nature, but demanding uncompromising obedience to the moral requirements of justice and truth. In the imagery of the day, such a god, distant yet demanding, was naturally thought of as father, judge, and king, and the notion of the female consorts of God, which might have compromised his moral authority, was sharply rejected.

We are now more deeply aware of the ambiguity of such moralizing demands; of the way in which appeals to an objective moral requirement can in practice exert an oppressive and intolerant influence on society. Moreover, in the twentieth century we are surely free of serious temptation to identify the feminine with nature, arationality, and amorality, and the masculine with reason and morality. One can, however, in historical perspective, see how the male and female images of deity could come to be sharply separated as they were in Hebrew thought. At the same time, one must be quite clear that the Hebrew tradition, precisely in insisting upon the total transcendence of God, also negated any true masculinity or sexuality in the Divine being itself.87 Contemporary theologians would be inclined to argue that an adequate image of God must include both transcendence and immanence; both those elements traditionally (or prejudicially) associated with masculinity and those with femininity. Yet one can see how the image of God as Father arose in reaction to amoral religious cults and preserved an important and distinctive perception of the moral demandingness and ontological transcendence of the Divine. Thereby human personality was raised to a transcendent dignity and history was given a moral and social goal. This remarkable transformation marks a discontinuity in religious history of major proportions. If today we might wish to move the tradition on a little further, perhaps it is still important to be clear that nature itself should never be worshipped and one should revere nature only in so far as one sees it as willed by God to express the Divine glory and realize the Divine purpose.

14. The Unity of Being

The birth of the prophetic tradition in Persia and in Palestine is one form of reaction against the primal faiths of the old gods and goddesses, as personifications of spirit-powers inherent in nature. Another main stream of response is found in India, where a different perception of the non-duality of all things and the unsatisfactoriness of all attachments led to the development of a different spiritual path of inward integration and enlightenment. In the sacred Scriptures of India, the Vedas and Upanishads, elements of primal religion remain, to an even greater extent than in the Bible. The Atharva-Veda consists in large part of spells for avoiding evil fortune and obtaining health, wealth, or longevity. There is a great concern in the Yajur-Veda for the correct carrying-out, in meticulous detail, of the proper ritual sacrifices, which will renew the universe. Even in the better-known Rig-Veda there is a fascination with sacred cosmogonies and numerology which shows forms of thought captivated by worlds of imaginative fantasy. All this is incorporated, especially in the Upanishads, into a central strand of very sophisticated reflection on the ultimate nature of reality.

The Indian tradition does not develop the moral passion of the Hebrew prophets. Accordingly, it does not discern any need to distinguish the natural and amoral universe from a morally demanding Supreme Spirit. ‘The vast majority of the Vedic hymns are not concerned in the remotest degree with questions of morals.’88 The gods are good powers, who appear in visions, who give support and aid to humans and who can release humans from misfortune. In the Vedic view, anything can be taken as a god and given the highest attributes. The gods merge and overlap, stressing different aspects of some power. Thus: ‘At evening he is Varuna, Agni; Mitra he becomes, arising in the morning.’89 Gods naturally come to be seen as aspects of one ultimate power, which in the Upanishads is characterized as Brahman, the Ultimately Real. The drive to find some ultimate unity in the objects of religious belief exists in the Indian as in the Semitic tradition. Whereas the Hebrews found that unity beyond the universe, excluding all finite diversity, the Indian seers found it in the universe itself, as the one power of being within all things.

If Brahman ‘consists of all things’,90 then each person is part of Brahman, and one can discern Brahman by discerning the innermost self. ‘In this space that is within the heart dwells the “person” made of mind.’91 So begins the yogic quest for knowledge of the absolute reality within the heart which is distinctive of Indian streams of spirituality. Lacking the dimension of ‘external’ moral obligation, it provides instead a way to bliss and spiritual knowledge through meditation. As the tradition builds up, a characteristic stress is placed on the unity of all things and on the importance of inner peace and freedom from attachment as opposed to the active external struggle for social justice. The primal gods are not opposed. They are simply absorbed into a more inclusive cosmology and allocated a level said to be appropriate for various stages of spiritual development.

At an early stage in human history the development of religious thought towards a greater sense of the unity of the suprasensory split into two distinct streams, a way of inner enlightenment through meditation and a way of loving obedience through prayer. Ideas of revelation develop in different ways within those streams, though the concept of an active disclosure of the nature of one ultimate reality to human minds remains common. It is that concept which, in this part, I have attempted to trace in some of the primal religions of the modern world. Drawing on the large amount of anthropological research and analysis which is now available, I have presented a non-reductionist account of primal religious beliefs. That is, I have tried to see them as a genuine form of relationship to a suprasensory realm, providing a genuine, if partial, revelation of its character and an effective, if incomplete, salvific role—a way of mediating and enabling individuals to participate in its powers and values.

John Hick has expressed one version of such a view superbly, proposing ‘a religious but not confessional interpretation of religion’,92 an interpretation which is committed to the reality of the suprasensory realm, but not to the distinctive claims of any one religious tradition. I am sceptical, however, about the precise way in which he sets out his programme. I agree with Byrne and Clarke that ‘combining some kind of commitment to the reality of the sacred while avoiding all first-order theological claims may in the end be an impossible task’.93 In distinguishing confessional and comparative theology, in Part I, I envisaged three main ways in which comparative theology could be undertaken. It could be an attempt to interpret all human faiths comprehensively and justly, though inevitably and avowedly from one's own confessional (or perhaps non-religious) standpoint. It could be a joint enterprise, involving contributors from different faiths, without attempting any finally agreed view in detail. Or it could be a methodologically agnostic enterprise (which Byrne and Clarke favour), seeking a just statement of various views without any assertion of a viewpoint of one's own as to the reality of the objects of belief.

The present work is an attempt to undertake the first of these programmes, and a possible contribution to the second. It is thus certainly a ‘religious’ interpretation. My point of disagreement with Hick is that I do not think one can hold a religious view without holding a confessional view of some sort, however attenuated and revised it may be. Any such view presupposes the truth of some basic religious beliefs—such as that there is a suprasensory realm, having a certain character, which actively discloses itself to humans.94 In that respect, however, the account is no more objectionable methodologically than that of theorists like Durkheim, who work from an equally strong presupposition that no such realm exists. One aim has been precisely to test the religious presupposition against the phenomena which anthropologists report. One thing to be said in favour of this presupposition is that at least it does not relegate the whole of religion to illusion, but respects the testimony of believers that they are in contact with suprasensory powers. At the same time, however, a comparative study makes it fairly clear that those powers cannot be exactly as they are reported to be; they conflict with each other too much for that.

A plausible hypothesis which suggests itself is that, since primal revelations are very diverse, fallible, and developing, their diversity correlates with the natural diversities of culture, history, and temperament which characterize human societies. This suggests that the ‘gods’ which appear to seers in visions, dreams, and trance-states are symbolic forms, woven out of the imaginations of their devotees, as they seek to express and respond to the powers which limit human modes of being.95 Revelation does not come as a package of infallible information. It is the result of a Divine cooperative influencing of human thoughts and feelings, always congruent with the character of the culture in which the influence is felt.

This ‘Divine influence’ is, as Smart's six-dimensional analysis of religion helps to make clear, a complex process with a number of overlapping strands. As it has proceeded over thousands of years, it has been built up through many imperceptible stages by the imaginative narratives of poets (myth); the reflective speculations of theologians (doctrine); the visions and auditions of seers (experience); the ceremonial cults of priests (ritual); the prescriptions of moralists (ethics); and the decisions of institutional legislators (social organization). All these factors blend together to build up a religious tradition, whose manifold and gradualist origins tend to be unified and compressed so as to be attributed to the fabled deeds or experiences of tribal ancestors. What was originally the product of a long, complex process is seen as given instantaneously to an archetypal ancestor/spirit.

Within such a tradition, individuals find resources for relating to the powers which form the ultimate conditions of their existence. ‘Religious symbolization is concerned with imaging the ultimate conditions of existence.’96 The point of such symbolizations is connected with the avoidance of harm and the pursuit of human well-being. Members of the religious community can participate in the values and powers which are symbolized in their tradition, and thus be transformed, even reborn, into conscious sharing in a deeper spiritual reality. It is in this sense that the primal traditions offer ways of ‘salvation’, of liberation from the constrictions of egoism and alienation into a more harmonious or integrated way of life.

I have given a positive account of primal traditions, which stress aspects of human awareness often lost to a more technological culture—harmony with nature, the unity of existence, and the cognitive function of imagination. Such traditions are revelatory of fundamental powers and values of being; they provide exemplary patterns for living a truly human life, and they are channels of charismatic power for attaining that goal. This threefold structure of religious practice remains of fundamental importance in subsequent religious thought. Yet I have argued that, from the viewpoint of a scientific culture, the primal traditions stand in need of rational and moral development. As believers begin to seek a more unitary concept of suprasensory reality and of the human goal which lies in knowledge of it, new forms of religious life come into being. This suggests that an internal part of the revelatory process is reflection on received forms of symbolism and spiritual practice. There is not a sharp divide between reason and revelation; for revelation, the active disclosure of spiritual reality, develops precisely as reason, the reflective response to spiritual reality, opens up new possibilities for disclosive action.

The great scriptural traditions contain remnants of their primal past. The Indian traditions tend to absorb that past, subordinating it to higher levels of religious life. The Semitic traditions tend to exclude it or place it in a radically changed moralized context. In either case, a clarifying light is shed on the nature of revelation if one sees it as a long, developing process from diverse primal forms of religious life which are now irrecoverable in detail. The great Scriptures themselves are relatively late products of an immensely long process of development. They can be better understood as springing from earlier historically and culturally diverse traditions than as directly given by God without reference to culture or history. Indeed it is essential to have such a historical understanding if the scope and authority of revelation is to be reasonably assessed. It is this perspective that I have tried to convey in these reflections on primal traditions.

  • 1.

    E. B. Tylor, Primitive Culture (London: John Murray, 1873), part 1, p. 424.

  • 2.

    Sir James Frazer, The Golden Bough, abridged edn. (London: Macmillan, 1922).

  • 3.

    Ibid. 56.

  • 4.

    J. H. Leuba, A Psychological Study of Religion (New York: Macmillan, 1912), ch. 1.

  • 5.

    The point is well made in: Peter Byrne, Natural Religion and the Nature of Religion (London: Routledge, 1989), ch. 8.

  • 6.

    M. Muller, Natural Religion (London: Longman, 1889), 188.

  • 7.

    M. E. Spiro, ‘Religion: Problems of Definition and Explanation’, in M. Banton (ed.), Anthropological Approaches to the Study of Religion (London: Tavistock Publications, 1966), 85–126.

  • 8.

    Eric J. Sharpe, Understanding Religion (London: Duckworth, 1983), 48.

  • 9.

    Ten such characteristic features are listed by M. Southwold, in: ‘Buddhism and the Definition of Religion’, in Man, NS 13 (1978), 362–79.

  • 10.

    Frazer, The Golden Bough, 477.

  • 11.

    P. Worsley, The Trumpet Shall Sound (New York: McGibbon and Kee, 1968), 28.

  • 12.

    Ibid. 33.

  • 13.

    Ninian Smart, The Religious Experience of Mankind (Glasgow: Collins, 1971), 15 ff.

  • 14.

    S. F. Nadel, Nupe Religion (London: Routledge, 1954).

  • 15.

    Worsley, The Trumpet Shall Sound, 24.

  • 16.

    Cf. above, Part I, Sect. 5.

  • 17.

    ‘It is not often [a man] hears the doctrine of Truth: and a rare event is the arising of a Buddha’: Dhammapada, 14. 182, trans. Juan Mascaro (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1973).

  • 18.

    E. E. Evans-Pritchard, Theories of Primitive Religion (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 11965. 101 ff.

  • 19.

    P. Byrne and P. Clarke, Religion Explained and Defined (New York: St Martin's Press. 1993), 204.

  • 20.

    ‘The unanimous sentiment of the believers cannot be purely illusory’: E. Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, trans. J. N. Swain (London: Allen and Unwin, 1967), 417.

  • 21.

    Durkheim, The Elementary Forms, 227.

  • 22.

    Evans-Pritchard, Theories of Primitive Religion, 43.

  • 23.

    Robin Horton, ‘African Traditional Thought and Western Science’, in Bryan Wilson (ed.), Rationality (Oxford: Blackwell, 1970), 131–71.

  • 24.

    David Hume, The Natural History of Religion (1757).

  • 25.

    A good introductory account is given in: John Hinnells (ed.), A Handbook of Living Religions (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1985), 392–455.

  • 26.

    Cf. M. Eliade, Shamanism (New York: Pantheon, 1965).

  • 27.

    I. M. Lewis, Ecstatic Religion (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1971).

  • 28.

    Cf. R. H. Codrington, The Melanesians (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1891).

  • 29.

    Edward Tylor coined the word ‘animism’, and sets out his theory in Primitive (London: Murray, 1873).

  • 30.

    The idea of religion as maintaining an ideal equilibrium of nature is found in many Amerindian traditions. Cf. C. Kluckholhn and D. Leighton, The Navajo (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1974).

  • 31.

    Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger (London: Routledge, 1966), 88.

  • 32.

    W. Schmidt, The Origin and Growth of Religion [1931], trans. H. J. Rose (New York: Cooper Square, 1972).

  • 33.

    This account is quoted from Kyosuki Kindaiti, ‘Ainu Life and Legends’, in Joseph Campbell. Primitive Mythology (New York: Viking Press, 1959), 334 ff.

  • 34.

    W. J. Hoffman, ‘The Midewiwin or Grand Medicine Society of the Ojibwa’, Annual Reports of the Bureau of American Ethnology, 7 (1891), 143–300.

  • 35.

    Douglas, Purity and Danger, 89.

  • 36.

    K. Rasmussen, Intellectual Culture of the Iglulik Eskimos (Copenhagen: Gyldendalske Boghandel, 1929).

  • 37.

    E. E. Evans-Pritchard, Nuer Religion (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1956), 134.

  • 38.

    L. Lévy-Bruhl, Primitive Mentality (London: Beacon Press, 1966). Originally published as La Mentalité primitive (Paris, 1922).

  • 39.

    Such a view is set out in detail in M. Eliade, Patterns in Comparative Religion, I trans. Rosemary Sheed (London: Sheed and Ward, 1958).

  • 40.

    Rig-Veda, 10. 164. 46.

  • 41.

    For a comprehensive account of the primarily ‘stabilising and harmonising’ view of primal religions, cf. M. Eliade, A History of Religious Ideas, i (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1976).

  • 42.

    G. Lienhardt, Divinity and Experience (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1961), 67.

  • 43.

    L. Feuerbach, Lectures on the Essence of Religion, trans. M. Vogel (New York: Harper and Row, 1967), 136.

  • 44.

    Augustine, The City of God, bk. 2, ch. 29.

  • 45.

    ‘You shall tear down their altars and dash in pieces their pillars and burn their Asherim with fire; you shall hew down the graven images of their gods and destroy their name’ (Deut. 12: 3).

  • 46.

    ‘In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him’: 1 John 4: 9.

  • 47.

    Cf. Konrad Lorenz, On Aggression (London: Methuen, 1966).

  • 48.

    The famous phrase, not as such to be found in Immanuel Kant, but usually attributed to him. But he does say: ‘It is now still his [man's] duty to better himself. To do so must be within his power.’ Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone [1791] (New York: Harper, 1960), 36.

  • 49.

    Hans Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method (New York: Seabury Press, 1975), 103.

  • 50.

    Ibid. 102.

  • 51.

    Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript [1846].

  • 52.

    Durkheim, The Elementary Forms, 56.

  • 53.

    R. N. Bellah, ‘Religious Evolution’, American Sociological Review, 29 (1964), 367.

  • 54.

    Cf. W. E. H. Stanner, ‘The Dreaming’, in W. A. Lessa and E. Vogt (eds.), Reader in Comparative Religion: An Anthropological Approach (New York: Harper and Row, 1979).

  • 55.

    G. E. Swanson, The Birth of the Gods (Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan Press, 1960), 7.

  • 56.

    E. E. Evans-Pritchard, Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1937).

  • 57.

    These are spelled out in more detail in Part V, Sect. 9.

  • 58.

    H. W. Turner, Bibliography of New Religious Movements in Primal Societies (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1977–).

  • 59.

    Cf. J. G. Melton, Paganism, Magic and Witchcraft (New York: Garland, 1981).

  • 60.

    Ninian Smart, The Phenomenon of Religion (London; Macmillan, 1973), 42 ft.

  • 61.

    Cf. the classic accounts by B. Spencer and F. J. Gillen, The Native Tribes of Central Australia (London: Macmillan, 1899). Greek material is to be found in Jane Harrison, Themis: A Study of the Social Origins of Greek Religion (London: Cambridge University Press, 1927).

  • 62.

    Cf. Douglas, Purity and Danger.

  • 63.

    Deut. 6: 5.

  • 64.

    S. N. Kramer, History Begins at Sumer (London: Thames and Hudson, 1958).

  • 65.

    Cf. Lev. 1: 9.

  • 66.

    Lev 16: 20–2.

  • 67.

    2 Sam. 6: 6–8.

  • 68.

    Exod. 20: 4.

  • 69.

    Gen. 12: 3.

  • 70.

    Lev. 19: 34.

  • 71.

    1 Sam. 10: 5, 6.

  • 72.

    This point will be developed a little in the following Part.

  • 73.

    In Part I, Sect. 6, analysis of the nature of religious knowledge suggested a view of revelation as a Divine shaping of human thoughts in particular cultural and historical contexts. Now, from a study of primal traditions, the view can be developed as a model of Divine revelation in terms of a persuasive, co-operative

  • 74.

    Talcott Parsons, in the ‘introduction’, p. xxviii, to: Max Weber, The Sociology of Religion, trans. E. Fischoff (Boston: Beacon Press, 1963).

  • 75.

    F. Heiler, Erscheinungsformen und Wesen der Religion (Stuttgart: W. Kohl-hammer, 1961).

  • 76.

    Lao Tsu, Tao Te Ching (New York: Penguin, 1963), 57.

  • 77.

    Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses, ii. 152–69, trans. M. Wiles and M. Santer, in: Documents in Early Christian Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1975), 15.

  • 78.

    Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy, trans. J. Harvey (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1959), 143.

  • 79.

    Cf. Jane Harrison, Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion (London: Cambridge University Press, 1922).

  • 80.

    Jer. 2: 26–7.

  • 81.

    Cf. Francis Bacon, ‘The Advancement of Learning’ (1605), in The Works of Francis Bacon, eds. J. Spedding, R. L. Ellis, and D. D. Heath (Boston: Taggard and Thompson, 1863), vol. vi.

  • 82.

    Kgs. 18: 4.

  • 83.

    Erwin R. Goodenough, Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period, iii (New York: Pantheon, 1954).

  • 84.

    Cf. Num. 27: 21.

  • 85.

    Ezek. 8: 14.

  • 86.

    T. H. Huxley, Evolution and Ethics (London: Pilot Press, 1947).

  • 87.

    ‘To whom then will you liken God, or what likeness compare with him?’ Isa. 40: 18.

  • 88.

    A. Keith, The Religion and Philosophy of the Veda (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1925), 249.

  • 89.

    Atharva-Veda, 13. 3. 13.

  • 90.

    Brihadaranyaka Unpanishad, 4. 4. 5, in R. C. Zaehner, Hindu Scriptures (London: J. M. Dent, 1966).

  • 91.

    Taittiriya Upanishad, 1. 6. In Zaehner, Hindu Scriptures.

  • 92.

    John Hick, An Interpretation of Religion (London: Macmillan, 1989), I.

  • 93.

    Byrne and Clarke, Religion Defined, 96.

  • 94.

    This point will be developed in more detail in Part V, Sects. 7, 8.

  • 95.

    Hick, An Interpretation of Religion, 266. Note, however, that the problem of what sort of truth is to be attributed to these symbolic forms remains to be teased out.

  • 96.

    Bellah, ‘Religious Evolution’, 364.

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